Three reasons why Sean Hannity issued Roy Moore an ultimatum

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Sean Hannity has finally given up on defending Roy Moore, telling his Fox News audience last night that the Alabama Senate candidate should leave the race if he cannot clear up the allegations against him today.

“For me, the judge has 24 hours. He must immediately and fully come up with a satisfactory explanation for your inconsistencies that I just showed,”  Hannity said, referring to three different answers he said Moore gave him when asked whether he dated teens as a 30-something. “You must remove any doubt. If he can’t do that, then Judge Moore needs to get out of this race.”

I expect Hannity to sorrowfully announce tonight that Moore has failed to pass this test, finally pull his endorsement in the Alabama Senate race, and float some idea he says can prevent the seat from falling into Democratic hands. He will no doubt conjure up some explanation for why he didn’t pursue this course from the start instead of running interference for Moore. But the reality is that Hannity is responding to personal and political incentives that shifted wildly over the past week, leaving the Fox host with few reasons to stick with Moore and many to abandon him.

Moore has become a pariah over the past week following The Washington Post’s report on four women who say Moore pursued them when they were teenagers and he was an assistant district attorney in his early thirties. One of the accusers, Leah Corfman, told the Post that when she was 14, Moore took her to his house and groped her.

With Moore denying the allegations, Hannity emerged as perhaps his biggest defender on cable news. His coverage was a two-step: He acknowledged that the charges were damning if true, but then gave his audience every reason to disbelieve them. It was a typical performance from a Moore endorser who had previously supported President Donald Trump and former colleague Bill O’Reilly when women accused them of sexual misconduct.

Moore’s team rewarded Hannity for providing the candidate with cover by giving him an radio interview. During the November 10 conversation, Hannity pressed Moore about the specific allegations in the Post report, but he avoided passing judgment or calling attention to his many inconsistencies (particularly around whether Moore had “dated” teenagers) and obfuscations.

By last night, however, Hannity was suddenly very concerned about shifting statements, citing them in his ultimatum. He also pointed to the emergence of Beverly Young Nelson, who told reporters on Monday that Moore sexually assaulted her when she was 16 and provided them with her yearbook from that year, which was signed by Moore.

But that’s not all that changed.

First, it’s impossible to consider Hannity’s shift on Moore without looking at the context of the slew of advertisers who have announced over the last week that they are ceasing advertising on his Fox show. Media Matters has warned Hannity’s advertisers about his volatility and extremism, and his actions last week proved us right yet again. To prevent a full advertiser exodus, Hannity needs to do something big and splashy to try to wash off the stench he acquired by embroiling himself in yet another controversy.

Second, the Republican National Committee announced yesterday that it had withdrawn from a joint fundraising agreement with the candidate, casting him off rather than risk him contaminating the party’s 2018 hopefuls. The RNC joined the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI), and numerous other Republican politicians in cutting ties with Moore or calling for him to leave the race. Moore’s reported actions are horrific, and new polls suggest they have damaged his standing with the Alabama electorate -- it’s possible he could lose the race to Democrat Doug Jones, possibly throwing control of the Senate into jeopardy when 2018 rolls around.

Hannity is a party man above all else, and with the GOP dropping Moore it’s not surprising that he is setting himself up to do the same.

The third factor driving Hannity’s shift is that President Donald Trump has returned from his long Asia trip and is back in the White House today. That means it’s likely that Trump will no longer be able to dodge the story and will have some sort of announcement to make today, either in person, on Twitter, or via his press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

It’s possible that Hannity set the 24-hour clock so that he can follow the president’s lead. But Hannity’s comments last night may also be a tell about which direction the president plans to go. Hannity regularly fields phone calls from the president and has advised him in the past. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that they’ve already discussed the Moore situation. As CNN’s John Berman explained this morning, Hannity’s comments are a good indicator of the president’s thinking because it’s unlikely he would act “without the president's approval.”

Hannity would like to reframe the Moore debate to turn himself into the hero of the story, the noble skeptic who waited until he was sure to issue the final blow banishing Moore from the party. He’s really the guy who did what he was always supposed to do once he was out of other options.