Sean Hannity's stubbornness and volatility keep him in Roy Moore's corner

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Well, this take didn’t age well. I was sure that when Sean Hannity issued an ultimatum to Roy Moore on Tuesday night, saying that the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in next month’s Alabama special election had 24 hours to clear up reports that he preyed on teenagers, it meant the Fox News host was preparing to kick the twice-removed former judge to the curb. That seemed like the logical move, a way for Hannity to stem his advertiser losses and align with both the Republican National Committee and, I assumed, a forthcoming statement from President Donald Trump. Hannity would try to turn himself into the hero of the story, a conservative kingmaker who waited for all the damning facts to come in and then delivered the coup de grace that banished an alleged abuser from Republican politics, all while running up his own ratings by attracting viewers who wanted to know whether he’d follow through.

Instead, last night Hannity essentially accepted Moore’s explanation for the series of women who have accused him of either sexually assaulting them or otherwise pursuing them when they were teenagers and he was a 30-something federal prosecutor in the 1970s. Moore denied the claims and said he was the victim of a smear campaign by the “liberal media” in a bizarre “Open Letter to @seanhannity” that the campaign published on Twitter last night.

After agreeing with Ivanka Trump’s statement from earlier Wednesday that “there’s a special place in hell for people who prey on children,” Hannity read Moore’s statement in full. “We demanded, rightly, answers from Judge Moore,” Hannity concluded. “He provided them to the specific questions we asked.” He went on to say that the people of Alabama should decide whether to vote for Moore. The election “shouldn't be decided by me, by people on television, by Mitch McConnell, Washington, talk show hosts, newspeople,” he added.

Hannity’s decision doesn’t make sense by the standard he laid out on Tuesday night. The Fox host had said that Moore needed to provide a “satisfactory explanation” for two facets of the reports: the candidate’s denial that he knew Beverly Young Nelson, who had accused him of sexually assaulting her as a teenager, even though she had produced a high school yearbook that appeared to bear his signature; and Moore’s inconsistent statements to Hannity during an interview last week about whether he had dated teenaged girls. But Moore’s sole explanation in the letter for the inconsistent statements was to say he “did not date underage girls,” and his response to the yearbook was to float Gateway Pundit’s theory that the signature is a forgery, a theory that Hannity himself had already acknowledged when he issued the ultimatum.

By passing the buck to the voters of Alabama, Hannity is eschewing his own responsibility. Hannity isn’t just some guy with a TV show who talks about politics -- he endorsed Moore’s candidacy in September, and his decision not to follow through on the ultimatum and repudiate the Alabama Republican means that endorsement is still active. Hannity’s ongoing support for Moore means that he has put himself on the hook for every new allegation, and he should have to answer for every woman who comes forward. And more women are coming forward every day, while residents of Moore’s hometown acknowledge that his practice of dating teenagers was well-known at the time.

When I assumed Hannity was preparing to drop Moore, I underestimated his stubbornness. Hannity’s move is consistent with his initial coverage of the accusations against Moore, in which he strongly suggested the women were lying. It also aligns with his past support for Trump and former Fox colleague Bill O’Reilly after they were accused of sexual misconduct. As he has in the past, Hannity is refusing to back down in the face of harsh criticism.

When Hannity’s colleagues in the conservative media who had been critical of Trump started going after him for being a pro-Trump shill during the 2016 election campaign, Hannity didn’t thoughtfully consider their criticism and change his show. He attacked them right back, stuck with Trump to the bitter end, and has now spent much of the year since lashing out at these Never Trumpers. He claims they’re part of a conspiracy targeting the president, accusing them of criticizing Trump in order to regain “relevance.”

In May, observers condemned Hannity’s suggestions that former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich had been murdered because he had given DNC emails to WikiLeaks, calling his conspiracy theory sick and disgraceful. Hannity responded by ranting against his critics, pointedly declaring that he would retract and apologize for nothing. Only after Hannity reportedly came under pressure from within the network did he say he would stop pushing the story “out of respect for the family's wishes.”

The Seth Rich drama, coincidentally, kicked off the advertiser woes that have troubled Hannity to this day. Changing his tune on Moore might have staunched the flow of companies fleeing an association with his show for a time. But the Fox host's ongoing volatility will continue to make him a bad bet for advertisers who hope to avoid becoming embroiled in controversy yet again.