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Jay Sekulow, a member of President Donald Trump’s legal team, is a regular Fox News guest, particularly on staunch Trump ally Sean Hannity’s TV and radio shows (which Sekulow has also sometimes guest-hosted). Fox and Hannity have repeatedly given Sekulow a platform to push misinformation; in fact, Sekulow made at least seven misleading or dubious allegations on Hannity’s shows between late May and June, some of which Hannity encouraged.
Legal experts and Trump’s attorney general agree it would be “improper and illegal”
Conservative media figures have repeatedly downplayed possible collusion between associates of President Donald Trump and the Russian government, suggesting that “it’s not a crime” to collude with a foreign government to influence U.S. elections. Legal experts and Trump’s own attorney general, however, agree that such collusion would be “improper and illegal.”
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PolitiFact rated Fox anchor Gregg Jarrett’s claim that collusion with a foreign government in an election isn’t a crime “false,” citing three election law experts who named four statutes that could have been violated. Amid an FBI probe into whether members of President Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election, various conservative media figures have piled on to make similar claims that such actions -- if they occurred -- are not illegal.
On May 10, Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera was among the first to say that collusion with the Russian government in an election wouldn’t be a crime. Fox host Sean Hannity said on his radio show on May 22, “Let’s say they did [collude], they said to Vladimir Putin, ‘Hey Vladimir, release everything you got.’ And Vladimir released it to Julian Assange. You know, is that a crime?” On May 30, Fox’s Jarrett asserted on air that “collusion is not a crime. … You can collude all you want with a foreign government in an election. There is no such statute.” Jarrett made a similar argument in a FoxNews.com op-ed. And on May 31, conservative author Michael Reagan claimed on CNN, “Collusion is not breaking the law,” and repeatedly asked “what law” collusion breaks.
In a June 1 fact check, PolitiFact, responding to Jarrett, wrote, “We ran Jarrett’s argument by three election law professors, and they all said that while the word ‘collusion’ might not appear in key statutes (they couldn’t say for sure that it was totally absent), working with the Russians could violate criminal laws”:
Nathaniel Persily at Stanford University Law School said one relevant statute is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.
"A foreign national spending money to influence a federal election can be a crime," Persily said. "And if a U.S. citizen coordinates, conspires or assists in that spending, then it could be a crime."
Persily pointed to a 2011 U.S. District Court ruling based on the 2002 law. The judges said that the law bans foreign nationals "from making expenditures to expressly advocate the election or defeat of a political candidate."
Another election law specialist, John Coates at Harvard University Law School, said if Russians aimed to shape the outcome of the presidential election, that would meet the definition of an expenditure.
"The related funds could also be viewed as an illegal contribution to any candidate who coordinates (colludes) with the foreign speaker," Coates said.
To be sure, no one is saying that coordination took place. What’s in doubt is whether the word "collusion" is as pivotal as Jarrett makes it out to be.
Coates said discussions between a campaign and a foreigner could violate the law against fraud.
"Under that statute, it is a federal crime to conspire with anyone, including a foreign government, to ‘deprive another of the intangible right of honest services,’ " Coates said. "That would include fixing a fraudulent election, in my view, within the plain meaning of the statute."
Josh Douglas at the University of Kentucky Law School offered two other possible relevant statutes.
"Collusion in a federal election with a foreign entity could potentially fall under other crimes, such as against public corruption," Douglas said. "There's also a general anti-coercion federal election law."
Fox News host Sean Hannity attracted widespread condemnation for pushing conspiracy theories about a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, but it wasn’t his first time promoting or entertaining such wild claims on air. From claiming that the NFL’s Colin Kaepernick protested the national anthem because he “may have converted to Islam” to implying that former President Barack Obama is a terrorist sympathizer, here are some examples of Hannity embracing conspiracy theories.
Even by the recent standards of Fox News, the last two weeks have sent Sean Hannity into a remarkable free fall. In his quest to provide cover to President Donald Trump’s weakened administration, and unrestrained by anyone in the Fox News bureaucracy, Hannity has become the most visible national champion of a vicious and elsewhere-retracted conspiracy theory suggesting that the late Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich was murdered because he was a source for WikiLeaks.
Hannity, who is scheduled to return tonight from a vacation that doubled as a respite for his balking advertisers, is completely out of control. And his increasingly volatile actions are inextricably linked to the disastrous circumstances that Trump and Fox News have created for themselves in recent months.
This is the story of how one of America’s most popular conservative commentators dove into the fever swamp and refused to come up for air.
In the late summer of 2016, as Trump’s presidential bid continued to flag, his campaign and media allies turned to dark, paranoid conspiracy theories. Most of the debate from Hannity and his ilk focused on baseless claims that Hillary Clinton was in ill health, that she had suffered from seizures or a stroke.
But in August, Hannity’s attention turned from whether Clinton was about to die to whether she had recently killed.
On July 10, Rich was shot during what appears to have been a botched robbery while walking home in the early morning. Two weeks later, WikiLeaks released 20,000 emails that had been stolen from the DNC. Conspiracy theorists suggested Rich had been the WikiLeaks source, though The New York Times reported that the emails had actually been stolen by a hacker linked to Russian intelligence.
Though the story should have ended there, it didn’t. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange brought up Rich unprompted on a Dutch TV program, implying that the deceased DNC staffer had been a source.
It seemed like a perfect story for Hannity, who has mounted obsequious defenses of Trump and dabbled in conspiracy theories about the Clintons. Instead, Hannity repeatedly suggested the allegations were were less than credible, if “fascinating”:
This hesitance to wade into the fever swamps was only temporary. Hannity did not return to the story on his radio show for the rest of the year, and he did not discuss the Rich conspiracies on Fox News, even as several of his colleagues brought the allegations to the network’s audience.
But when he conducted a January 3 interview with Assange, Hannity suggested that WikiLeaks had received documents from a “disgruntled Democrat” who he later noted may have been Rich, a claim he has repeated in recent weeks.
Assange also repeatedly told Hannity that the Russian government was not his source. Now that Assange was casting aspersions on Democrats, Hannity was apparently willing to take this claim at face value, even though the Fox host had previously called for the WikiLeaks founder’s arrest and accused him of “waging war against the U.S.”
By the spring, both Fox News and the Trump administration were in different places than they had been when Hannity brushed off what he had admitted were Seth Rich “conspiracy theories.” The former was in the middle of a massive shake-up that had left Hannity unmoored. And the latter had become consumed by scandals.
At Fox, Bill O’Reilly, a longtime Hannity rival and the King of Cable News, was forced out of the network he helped build in mid-April after a massive advertiser boycott prompted by numerous reports that he had sexually harassed his colleagues. Weeks later, Bill Shine, the former Hannity producer who had risen to become Fox News’ co-president, was forced to resign over his reported role in covering up sexual harassment at the network. His predecessor, Fox founder Roger Ailes, had been pushed out the year before over similar allegations.
Meanwhile, a faltering administration entered a new period of crisis on May 9, when Trump fired FBI director James Comey. Later that week, he admitted that he was acting in response to Comey’s handling of a federal investigation into Russian influence on the 2016 election. The firing kicked off two weeks of brutal stories for the White House that shredded the president’s credibility, put the future of his administration in jeopardy, and strained the ability of Trump's media allies to defend him.
For Hannity, these circumstances were a lake of gasoline. Late on May 15, Fox 5 DC provided the match. In what was billed as an exclusive story, Rod Wheeler, a private detective and Fox News contributor, said he had evidence that Rich had been in contact with WikiLeaks at the time of his death.
At 12:37 a.m. ET May 16, Hannity tweeted out the story with the question “Thoughts twitter??” Over the next half hour and then again early the next morning, as hundreds of replies flooded in, the Fox host highlighted conspiratorial tweets suggesting that a close Clinton operative may have had Rich killed, that Assange had previously said Rich was his source, and that Rich was actually WikiLeaks’ indirect, not direct, source.
But the Rich story quickly fell apart when Wheeler backed off the claims that had been attributed to him. As the Fox affiliate backed away from its report, Hannity leaned into it harder than ever, discussing it on three editions of his Fox News show, and devoting multiple segments to Rich’s murder on each episode of his radio show.
Hannity, a natural propagandist, repeatedly aired clips of Assange’s interviews, and he treated the WikiLeaks founder’s claims about his sources as incontrovertible fact. He questioned law enforcement’s suggestion that Rich was the victim of a botched robbery. And he hyped Wheeler’s claim as an “explosive development” that flies in the face of the “media hysteria meltdown and the alliance to destroy President Trump.”
While it’s unclear if he is acting sincerely or cynically, Hannity is very clear about what he is trying to accomplish with his coverage. He’s pushing this vile conspiracy theory because he thinks it rebuts the avalanche of stories linking Trump and Russia (it doesn’t), and because it allows him to suggest the Clinton camp was willing to stoop to murder (it wasn’t).
In the process, Hannity has alienated himself from mainstream conservatives and thrown his lot in with the most paranoid corners of the internet. On pro-Trump internet communities like Reddit’s subreddit “r/The_Donald,” 4chan, and 8chan, posters praised Hannity for his courage and reveled in the story breaking through to the mainstream. Recoiling from Hannity’s lack of empathy for the Rich family and his unwillingness to yield to common decency, more serious conservative figures joined the chorus of commentators rightfully condemning Hannity’s actions.
Faced with widespread infamy and criticism from Rich’s family, Hannity responded by declaring himself the one person who was really interested in getting to the bottom of the murder in the face of pressure to shut him up. “I am not backing off asking questions even though there's an effort that nobody talk about Seth Rich,” he said on his May 19 Fox show.
What followed was not investigative journalism, but an epic freakout.
On May 20, Hannity announced the next step in his so-called investigation: an interview with Kim Dotcom, a hacker “now fighting extradition to the United States on copyright infringement and wire fraud” who claimed to have proof linking Rich and WikiLeaks.
He followed that announcement up with a Sunday night Twitter meltdown demanding that Congress investigate Rich’s murder, declaring that Democrats were panicking, and lashing out at his critics as “snowflakes.” Notably, as he prepared to host an alleged criminal hacker in service of a deranged conspiracy theory, Hannity was already positioning himself for martyrdom, asking his fans, “Any bets when the kitchen sink is dumped on my head??” And after FoxNews.com retracted its story and Media Matters published a list of Sean Hannity’s Fox News advertisers, Hannity was defiant. “All you in the liberal media, I am not Fox.com or FoxNews.com, I retracted nothing,” he said. An hour before his show was to air, he tweeted that he stood by everything he had said, and promised: “More at 10 pm tonight.”
But minutes before the show started, he revealed on Twitter that he had just spoken with three of his attorneys. And when the lights came up on his Fox News broadcast, Kim Dotcom was nowhere to be found. Instead, Hannity declared that “out of respect for the family's wishes -- for now -- I am not discussing this matter at this time.”
Hannity also revealed what was really motivating the shift. “Media Matters is attacking my advertising base,” he said. “That is what we have called on this program liberal fascism, attack, boycott, all in an effort to silence conservatives.”
The Fox host swiftly made clear that he didn’t really care about the family, which had begged him repeatedly to stop exploiting Seth’s death. Before his show had even concluded, he was telling his Twitter followers that he was “closer to the TRUTH than ever” and that he was “not stopping.”
He followed that up the next day with a lengthy Twitter rant against Media Matters accusing us of, among other things, attacking only conservatives. In an interview with HuffPost, he said we are attempting “to take [him] out” and attempting a “kill shot.” As he offers vitriolic defenses while continuing to hint at Rich conspiracy theories on air, advertisers are starting to head for the exits.
Hannity has spent the last weeks pushing reckless conspiracy theories about an innocent murder victim in a desperate effort to preserve the president’s power and fend off his increasingly aggressive foes. These are the depths to which he has been willing to stoop within the first four months of the Trump administration. As the administration continues its collapse -- and as Hannity apparently faces no restraints other than his own fear of going out like O’Reilly -- there’s no telling how low he can go.
Additional research provided by Shelby Jamerson.
He also has flouted ethical and employment guidelines
Volatile Fox News anchor and right-wing conspiracy theorist Sean Hannity has repeatedly pushed stories even after his network retracted or backed away from them and has on multiple occasions broken ethical and employment guidelines. Hannity has pushed polls that the network had previously said “do not meet our editorial standards,” hyped debunked Muslim “no-go zones” in France after the network had to apologize for reporting about them, engaged in political activity without Fox’s knowledge or approval, and has used his Fox platform to benefit a sponsor of his radio show.
Fox host Sean Hannity, a professional propagandist for President Donald Trump, also has a history of bigotry, sexism, and pushing conspiracy theories. Below is a quick tour through Hannity’s career:
Hannity was fired from his first radio job after saying that gay people are prone to disease because they consume each other's feces during sex.
After outlets banned selling the Confederate flag, Hannity demanded that they also stop selling rap music.
Hannity promised that he would be waterboarded for charity but has never followed through. He also slammed a football into his desk, screaming, “Imagine this is Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's head. Dunk it in water so we can save American lives."
Hannity used footage from a Glenn Beck rally to make a Michele Bachmann rally look bigger than it actually was.
Hannity lied about Michelle Obama’s senior thesis in order to portray her as a radical.
Hannity praised conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who claims that the 9/11 terror attacks and the Sandy Hook massacre were committed by the U.S. government, telling him he was doing a “great job.”
Hannity’s source for anti-Clinton information was a former editor of the Weekly World News who frequently wrote about Bigfoot and aliens. Hannity also has a bizarre fascination with Hillary Clinton’s underwear.
Hannity agreed with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) that the Supreme Court’s marriage equality decision constituted “some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history.”
Hannity said that only idiots refer to “climate change” -- he just calls it the weather.
Hannity defended Donald Trump’s racist attacks on a federal judge overseeing the Trump University case.
Hannity wanted to make sure that parents can teach kids that “being gay is not normal.”
Cable news hosts surveyed about their colleagues deemed Hannity the worst of cable news hosts, which made him furious. Later, when a Wall Street Journal editor called him “Fox News’ dumbest anchor,” Hannity had a late-night meltdown on Twitter.
During one of their many interviews, Hannity fed Trump a lie about Syrian refugees from a hoax website. Trump then began repeating it at campaign events.
Hannity declared the probe into Russian hacking during the 2016 election a “liberal media fake news story.”
Hannity speculated that Colin Kaepernick protested the national anthem because “he might have converted to Islam.”
Hannity also denied that Trump had been hostile to non-white voters.
VICE mocked Hannity’s martial arts skills and described Hannity as “the kind of bro who talks up his street fighting skills on Twitter.”
Hannity said that John Legend -- who won an Academy Award for his song in the historical drama Selma -- “doesn’t know anything” about voting rights.
After Seth Rich’s family pleaded with Fox to stop pushing a conspiracy theory about his murder, Hannity continued hammering the issue, seemingly to distract from an investigation of Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia.
Hannity laughably said police officers won’t bother black Americans if they’re not “part of a gang.”
Hannity asked if affirmative action is as “equally wrong” as racial discrimination.
Hannity justified Trump’s attack on a Muslim Gold Star family during the 2016 election and actually asked Trump during an interview why the family was targeting him.
After Trump used the term “anchor baby” in a political ad, Hannity defended using the slur to describe the American citizen children of undocumented immigrants. He claimed there was “no other term to use,” apparently forgetting the term “American citizen.”
Hannity smeared black Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. as racist by distorting a 1994 interview he gave on C-SPAN. He missed the fact that Gate’s comments were about an event in 1959.
Hannity repeatedly employed anti-Muslim smears against Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), including saying that Ellison taking the oath of office on the Quran was akin to using “Hitler’s Mein Kampf, which is the Nazi bible.”
Hannity falsely accused a former Obama administration official of concealing a statutory rape from two decades previous.
Hannity baselessly claimed a different former Obama administration official wanted to “force sterilizations” on Americans.
Hannity pushed the “death panels” smear of Obamacare in a book.
Hannity joined other conspiracy theorists pushing baseless claims about Hillary Clinton’s health during the 2016 presidential election, specifically saying that she was having “seizures.”
Hannity said that a 2006 Democratic midterm election victory could be a “victory for the terrorists.”
Hannity attacked Obama for putting “fancy” Dijon mustard on his food. Seriously.
Hannity criticized Obama’s children for going to the Bahamas and Idaho during spring break, complaining about the cost to taxpayers, yet years later he denied he had ever criticized them. He has yet to criticize Trump or his family for any of their travels or for the fact that Melania and Barron Trump live in New York.
Hannity lauded Trump’s use of a teleprompter during the 2016 campaign, after spending years attacking Obama for using a teleprompter.
Hannity asked WikiLeaks to back up his baseless assertion that the CIA framed the Russian government for 2016 election interference.
Hannity urged Facebook to show live video of violence and murder so people could “understand the nature of evil.” He defended this call by saying that kids have already seen violence given “the games” they play.
Hannity urged Trump to arrest 46 U.S. attorneys after he dismissed them.
Hannity claimed that Obama’s campaign database is proof of “a shadow government” and that it demonstrates that Hannity's “not the great conspiracy theorist that some people may think I am.”
Hannity warned his viewers that the “globalist establishment” is “in bed with the Republican establishment” and said it was “reminiscent of former Soviet Union propaganda and mind control.” (Remember when he said he wasn’t a conspiracy theorist?)
Hannity claimed that “everything that conspiracy theorists have said over the years” is “true.” He added that “it’s a media assault on your mind.”
Hannity suggested that former Bill Clinton aide Vince Foster’s suicide was a “massive coverup” and that the Clintons may have been involved.
Hannity said in 2008 that “demoniz[ing]” Hillary Clinton is “my job.”
Hannity refused to rebuke Trump’s false claim, originating from tabloid The National Enquirer, that Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) father was involved with John F. Kennedy’s assassination. Hannity has said the Enquirer “gets a lot of things right.”
Hannity falsely claimed that Obama “is Bill Ayers” and “is Reverend Wright.”
Hannity criticized a women’s sexual health study by claiming female students “seem to be the only ones getting stimulated.” Ew.
To defend Trump's decision to fire then-FBI Director James Comey, Hannity invoked a dubious claim originating from the “alt-right” that Comey could have been implicated in leaking classified information.
Hannity defended Glenn Beck’s claim that Obama is “a racist.”
Hannity attacked the judges who ruled against Trump’s Muslim ban, claiming they put Americans’ lives “literally in jeopardy.”
Hannity lauded rancher Cliven Bundy’s refusal to comply with the federal government’s demand that he pay grazing fees for using public land, with Bundy calling Hannity a “hero.”
Hannity completely flipped his views on WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, going from calling for his arrest to claiming he had “done a lot of good” after he targeted Clinton during the 2016 election.
Hannity called Hillary Clinton’s laugh “frightening.”
Hannity falsely claimed that the killing of Osama Bin Laden was “thanks to George Bush,” even though the operation was ordered by Obama.
Hannity refused to accept a T-shirt from firefighters because they supported Obama.
Hannity pushed the misleading claim that 47 percent of Americans don’t pay taxes well before Mitt Romney did.
Hannity attacked people on food stamps for having an “entitlement mindset.”
Hannity defended Augusta National Golf Club’s men-only policy by comparing it to a “girls night out.”
Hannity defended Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Sandra Fluke by saying Limbaugh was just “trying to be funny.”
Hannity argued in 2012 that Obama supporters would defend Obama if he was “robbing a bank and shooting all the tellers.”
Hannity asked if Obama compared himself to Trayvon Martin because “he smoked pot and he did a little blow.”
Hannity attacked California for enacting a law protecting transgender students, saying, “What do we do with the 7-year-old girl that goes into the locker room and there's the 14-year-old boy naked in the girls' locker room because that's where he chooses to be?"
Hannity in 2013 claimed that Obama on World AIDS Day discussed AIDS in order to “change the topic” from the Affordable Care Act.
Hannity attacked the Transportation Security Administration for making an animated video explaining the airport screening process for children, calling it “indoctrination.”
Hannity defended Duck Dynasty star Phil Robertson when he called homosexuality sinful and similar to bestiality, saying his comments reflect “old-fashioned traditional Christian sentiment and values.”
Hannity mocked Obama for wearing a bicycle helmet while bicycling, calling it “embarrassing.”
Hannity said that because he lived in New York, he knew “what it’s like to live under communism.”
Hannity predicted that New York City would become “a mess” because the city’s mayor wanted to close public schools during certain Muslim holidays.
Hannity questioned how the 2012 Benghazi attacks were any different from Watergate, saying, “Four Americans weren’t abandoned to be murdered in Watergate.”
BONUS: Hannity was described by the website Wonkette as “the dumbest motherfucker on planet Earth.”
In August of 2016, Sean Hannity on his radio show said “it would be reckless and irresponsible to suggest the Clintons or the DNC had anything to do with” the murder of Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich. Since then, however, Hannity has been the most prominent driver of conspiracy theories that suggest just that.
During the August 10 edition of his radio show, Hannity brought up the fringe theories surrounding Rich’s death but repeatedly stated that he wasn’t “insinuating” Hillary Clinton or the DNC were complicit, and to do so would be “irresponsible”:
However, since then, of course, Hannity has dropped all pretense and pushed the conspiracy theory, insinuating exactly what he said would be “reckless and irresponsible" to insinuate.
After a week of intense backlash to his recent promotion of the discredited Seth Rich conspiracies, advertisers began to back away from his Fox News show, and Hannity went on vacation.
Before he left, one of his last public acts was to brag that “there’s nothing that I did, nothing that I said, except they don’t like my position politically,” in reference to criticism of his obsession with Rich.
Click here to listen to the full exchange from Hannity's August 10 radio show.