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Sean Hannity and the End of Obviousness

The reaction to Trump’s week of chaos shows how deeply the media landscape has split

(Fox/Ringer Illustration)
(Fox/Ringer Illustration)

Even given the standards of our particular loop around the sun, it has been an eventful 10 days. The president fired the director of the FBI. The president definitely did and then definitely did not do this at the recommendation of the Department of Justice. The president revealed extremely sensitive intelligence to Russian diplomats in the Oval Office a day later. The president, it turns out, asked the FBI director before he was fired to stop investigating the president’s former national security adviser — who, we now know, had warned the administration that he was under federal investigation — over possible ties to Russia. The president suggested he may be taping his conversations with government officials. The press secretary hid in or maybe just among bushes; the phrase “priming the pump” was invented; Watergate was invoked. And finally, on Wednesday afternoon, the Department of Justice appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to investigate possible Russian interference in the 2016 campaign.

It has been a lot! It has made your head hurt, maybe, made you lose track of all your tabs. Made your parents text you, perhaps: Wow, what a day. What another day. But things seemed clear, at the very least: Many of the events preceding the appointment of a special counsel have been deeply worrisome. Or else embarrassing, silly, frightening, unpresidential, threatening to institutions and/or national security. Possibly all of the above, but in any case obviously — obviously — some shade of Not What You Want From The White House. And then maybe Wednesday night, just to see, you spun your remote over to Fox News, where in the 10 p.m. ET hour, Sean Hannity wanted to talk about a conspiracy: the one trying to bring down Donald J. Trump.

Hannity is now, in the absence of Bill O’Reilly, the unambiguous top dog among Fox’s talking heads. (On Thursday, he deviated from his defenses of Trump to memorialize Roger Ailes, who was forced out of the network he built last year after decades of complaints by women against the mogul were finally heard. Hannity previously suggested these complaints were “all BS.”) So it’s reasonable to look to him for a sense of how the last week’s cascade of executive actions and revelations is being interpreted by a certain segment of the right. The answer: These things have been seen by and large as evidence of lies, plots, and attempted sabotage of Trump, who remains — even in the hours after the Tuesday-afternoon publication of a story in which the president’s own aides described him as too ignorant to do any real damage to the country’s intelligence infrastructure — a hero and, improbably, a victim. On Fox, as perhaps nowhere else on TV, the news is being severed less into different frequencies than into different realities.

On Wednesday night’s episode, Hannity returned again and again to the word “conspiracy.” He described what he calls the “Destroy Trump Alliance,” a shadowy union of Trump foes, members of the political establishment, the “Deep State,” and the media. Setting aside that Hannity has a well-established fondness for his own conspiracies — on Tuesday’s program, he opened with a “report” on Seth Rich, whose killing self-appointed researchers have seized on as evidence of a discredited plot involving WikiLeaks; on Wednesday, Hannity repeatedly referenced a conspiracy theory that falsely purports Hillary Clinton sold American uranium to Russia, while guest Geraldo Rivera readily cited Benghazi as a source of animosity toward Trump. “Everything we have been telling you since November the 8th has been coming to fruition,” Hannity said. “As I explained last night, in an unprecedented move, five powerful groups” — the “Destroy Trump Alliance” — “are aligning to take down President Trump.”

Conspiracy has been the theme of Hannity all week. On Tuesday’s program, the word was uttered by another of Hannity’s guests, Sebastian Gorka, the former national security editor of Breitbart who is now a deputy assistant to Trump. “When is it going to stop?” Gorka asked. “When is the conspiracy theory insanity of the Resist movement — of the Ben Rhodes, Colin Kahl nexus — going to say, ‘Look, we’re not going to endanger national security anymore, we’re going to do actual journalism?’”

The saboteurs here are not the myriad sources across the executive branch whom reporters have found only too eager to talk about the tumult, but the reporters and their employers themselves, whom Gorka singled out as “no longer fake news” and instead “dishonest news.”

All week long, Trump’s base has harped on “leaks,” and all week long, this has meant coverage of the numerous catastrophes that have unfolded in the White House since January 20. But in Trump’s administration, the coziness with reporters comes from the top: Just five days after taking office, Trump had called The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman to gush about his delight with the White House phones (“The words just explode in the air”), the executive mansion’s size (“They have a lot of board rooms”), and his cable news–heavy morning routine. And yet Trump and his administration continually present themselves as in opposition to — if not outright persecuted by, as Trump intimated on Wednesday — these reporters. Less than two weeks after the aforementioned Haberman story, the White House denied a second Times story co-bylined by Haberman that described Trump “watching television in his bathrobe” by saying that Trump “definitely doesn’t own” a bathrobe at all — and after Trump had been so gossipy and forthright with the Times previously, well, it was hard not to have some faith in the outlet’s sourcing. If you define a leak as someone in the administration telling a reporter something the White House later wishes it could strike from the record, it seems clear that the culture extends all the way to the guy in charge. And yet, among Tuesday’s many revelations was that Trump reportedly also urged James Comey to consider jailing journalists who publish classified information; last week, Hannity suggested that the White House discontinue press briefings entirely in favor of tweets.

The point of all of this is that none of this is the point. To look at the revelations of the last week as matters whose most crucial elements are who leaked and published the information seems absurd. Obstruction of justice — even the appearance of obstruction of justice — is not what you want from the Oval Office. Revealing sensitive intelligence to foreign governments that might abuse it is bad, right? Possibly accidentally doing so — that’s worse; it must be. Here’s Trump condemning sloppy handling of intelligence in 2016; here’s Paul Ryan doing the same. This surely can’t be a partisan issue; Fox News knows that. The untrue statements, the contradicting, the norm-flouting chaos — isn’t this bad? Obviously bad? Shouldn’t the appointment of a special counsel — one who led the FBI under Republican and Democratic presidents alike — be an inflection point, a sign that this is not just manufactured controversy, that the problems in the administration are real and serious?

Take it away, Sean:

There’s an old Monty Python sketch in which a man goes to an “argument clinic” in a quest, naturally, to do some arguing; he and the other patrons then spend the bulk of their time arguing about whether they are, in fact, having an argument at all.

I’ve felt this way a lot this year. We’re all definitely arguing, but if we’re not arguing competing points in the same conversation … is it even an argument? In broadsheets and non-right-wing publications and networks, this week has provoked questions of the independence of the judiciary and the potential for impeachment. On Hannity, it has meant breathless coverage of the “Destroy Trump Alliance.” Hannity is scarcely alone in his response: On Monday night, Breitbart ran the headline “Deep State Strikes: Leaks Classified Info to Washington Post to Smear Trump,” while Charles Johnson and others on the right laughed the developments off entirely. “FANTASTIC @seanhannity show tonight,” Ann Coulter tweeted late Tuesday. “This is the kind of week that is perfect for Hannity. MUST WATCH!” On Hannity, the discovery of damning facts about the White House is not a moment to consider those facts and what they mean, but to stop at the word “discovery” and circle the wagons.

The president is a self-avowed creature of cable news; while campaigning, he and his team spurned traditional preparation methods in favor of messaging picked up on conservative talk radio stations. “Believe me,” Trump is fond of saying in speeches, often alongside reinforcements of his favored dichotomy: the not-to-be-trusted “fake news” — reporters who publish things he doesn’t like, even when he’s the source of them — and real journalists, i.e. those who share his view of persecution, including many of the friendly faces at Fox. Ailes championed his flagship as a media alternative to CNN’s “Clinton News Network” and CBS’s “Communist Broadcasting System.” In the hands of a president who seems to have taken this narrative as a personal mission statement, Ailes’s alternative media has become a waystation for an alternative reality.

A little more than 100 days into the Trump presidency, we’ve reached the point where there is seemingly no story that can produce even a moment of shared frequency. It’s apparently no longer obvious that the president should not thoughtlessly divulge state secrets to foreign adversaries, by virtue of the fact that relatively mainstream conservative sources aren’t even discussing the issue. It’s not obvious that the president asking the FBI to cease an investigation of a member of his staff is problematic. It’s not obvious that the president shouldn’t secretly record his conversations; that he shouldn’t make his vice president say one thing before the president says another; that he shouldn’t attempt to kill legal inquiries merely because he doesn’t like them. It’s all partisan and debatable and post-fact. But this much, at least, is certain on all sides: When the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.