Shadow chief of staff Sean Hannity gives spending deal the green light

Update: NY Times reports that the White House reached out to Hannity

Melissa Joskow / Media Matters

After initially denouncing the tentative deal on spending legislation and threatening any Republican legislator who dared to support it, Fox News host Sean Hannity changed his tune on Tuesday night, leaving his close ally President Donald Trump space to sign on to the compromise.

Several of the Fox hosts closest to the White House criticized the deal when it was first announced Monday night because it gave the president little of what he had demanded, including a mere $1.375 billion for physical barriers.

Notably, Hannity’s attacks on the reported deal raised serious questions about its political validity. After he said on his Fox show that “any Republican that supports this garbage compromise, you will have to explain” what he termed the deal’s insufficient funding for the wall, commentators suggested that because of his close ties to the president, he had effectively vetoed the proposal.

But over the course of Tuesday, as Trump criticized the plan but did not reject it, Hannity’s emphasis shifted. On his afternoon radio show, which started soon after news of Trump’s initial comments about the deal broke, he suggested that while the bill is “garbage,” Trump could accept it as a down payment on the wall while using other methods to get more funding for it.

Hannity reiterated this on his Tuesday night Fox program. He continued to criticize the legislation, saying that Trump has “every right to be angry” with the bill because the “so-called compromise is typical of the D.C. sewer and swamp.” But the Fox host also said that he isn’t “as concerned as some other conservatives if the president signs the bill,” as long as Trump also uses “money he's identified, some $900 million for additional construction, that is already available for the administration's discretion” as well as simultaneously declaring a national emergency. “This is the time. That is a necessity,” he added. “And the president, I think I know him very well, telegraphed that very thing just today.”

It’s unclear what caused Hannity to shift his position so dramatically, from threatening Republican members of Congress who supported the proposal to saying it would be fine if the president himself signed on to it. Though Hannity denied on Tuesday night that he had any inside information about what the president planned to do, he reportedly speaks to Trump on a near-nightly basis and has a great deal of influence over White House operations.

However it came about, in walking back his previous firm opposition to the legislation, Hannity put himself back in line with the president and made it possible for Trump to support the bill without contradicting his shadow chief of staff.

And sure enough, on Wednesday morning news broke that Trump intends to do exactly what Hannity suggested the previous night: sign the deal, while still considering ways to obtain more wall funding unilaterally, possibly including the declaration of a national emergency.

Trump’s reported decision also lines up with the advice he received on Tuesday morning from the co-hosts of the influential Fox morning show Fox & Friends. The hosts spun the reported deal as a win for the president, with Steve Doocy adding that Trump might have “something else up his sleeve,” namely other ways to unilaterally obtain wall funding.

Update (2/14/19): After the publication of this post, The New York Times provided a possible explanation for Hannity’s U-turn: With a goal of “tamping down criticism on the right,” the White House reached out to him with the message that Trump “deserved support because he still forced concessions that he would never have gotten without a five-week partial government shutdown.” The outreach was reportedly led by Bill Shine, Hannity’s friend and former producer who later became co-president of Fox News; after he was forced to resign for his role in the network’s culture of sexual harassment, he became White House communications director.

The White House also reportedly reached out to Lou Dobbs, a Fox Business host and committed xenophobe who has also advised Trump. Unlike Hannity, Dobbs had sharply criticized the president after he caved on the government shutdown last month. Dobbs has slammed the spending deal, but not Trump himself, instead presenting the president as the victim of “radical Dems and the complicit RINOS,” referring to so-called Republicans In Name Only.

Rather than urge Trump to veto the compromise, Dobbs has instead told his audience that the president can sign the agreement and still “emerg[e] ... stronger” because “his enemies and opponents simply are ignoring the reality: His support is building and theirs is waning.” He’s also stressed that there is “no question” Trump will get the wall built because when he “makes a promise, he keeps a promise.”

Notably, both Dobbs and Hannity have left Trump space to renounce the compromise at the last minute by stressing that the bill could contain “monstrous traps” or a “poison pill” that the president might find unacceptable. No matter what he ends up doing, it appears that his loyal propagandists will have his back.