Sean Hannity – Trumpian

When he finally went to bed early in the morning on Oct. 2, Sean Hannity had a good sense, as he typically does, of how he would structure that night’s Fox News Channel broadcast. He’d lead with Puerto Rico, and a defense of the Trump administration’s hurricane relief efforts, before moving on to the N.F.L. players who continued to kneel during the national anthem before games. But by the time he woke up, a few hours later — Hannity rarely sleeps more than four hours a night, a trait he shares with his friend President Trump — the screen of his iPhone was jammed with alerts of a shooting in downtown Las Vegas, where a man named Stephen Paddock had opened fire on the attendees of a country-music festival. Dozens were dead, hundreds injured. “What the hell is going on?” Hannity recalls thinking.
In his morning call with his senior executive producer at Fox, Porter Berry, and his executive producer, Tiffany Fazio, he suggested a rewrite of the opening monologue, a six-to-seven-minute riff that he sees as the most important part of the show. On Twitter, he told the producers, he’d noticed many liberals calling for increased gun control. He wanted to center his monologue on a theme he frequently returns to on Fox and on his syndicated daily radio show, which reaches approximately 13.5 million Americans: Why was it that liberals always used tragedies to further their own political ends? To make the segment really hum, he would need material to react to — Hannity’s most effective segments are oppositional — and Berry and Fazio agreed to start digging.
Until a few years ago, the staff of “Hannity,” the top nightly cable show in the United States, shared news by text or email, but today, much of the collaborative work is handled via a Twitter account accessible to only the staff. “If I like something, I’ll click Like, and if other producers like something, they’ll click Like,” Berry told me. The result is a “pool of ideas” — “50, 60, 70 stories,” in addition to articles Hannity himself has flagged for inclusion. “You’ve got to pull it all together,” Berry added. “Build that argument.” Soon, a few top contenders had emerged, among them a Facebook comment from a CBS executive, Hayley Geftman-Gold, who wrote that she was “not even sympathetic” because “country-music fans often are Republican gun toters.”
Around 3 p.m., Hannity settled into his studio on one of the top floors of the iHeartRadio offices just north of Times Square. Hannity has been a talk-radio host for three decades — he has been on television a comparatively meager 23 years — and his posture was relaxed, his normally helmeted-for-TV hair swept into a hand-combed side part. He bickered amiably with his longtime executive producer, Lynda McLaughlin, and his young chief engineer, Jason Mosse, and when I took a seat behind McLaughlin, Hannity hissed into the talk-back channel, placing a finger over his lips: “Shhh, guys. That’s a New York Times writer. Nobody be themselves.”
Hannity later told me he had, over time, developed separate approaches for his radio and television shows. “My thoughts are the same: I’m mad,” he said. “But with television, I’ve got the images to help me out. With radio, it’s on me to paint the picture.” He opened his Oct. 2 radio broadcast with police-scanner audio from Las Vegas, punctuated by the sound of a SWAT team using breach charges to enter the shooter’s hotel room. When it ended, Hannity compared the officers to the first responders who had run toward the crumbling World Trade Center in 2001. “In this particular case,” he said, “you’ve got the same policemen that are regularly trashed by individuals, those same policemen standing outside the door where this madman is firing his weaponry.”
On the other side of the glass of the studio booth, her legs hidden beneath an American-flag blanket, Lauren Scirocco, the associate producer, was screening potential callers. “The Sean Hannity Show” receives more than 1,000 calls per line per minute, and Scirocco told me she has learned, with practice, to swiftly differentiate the cranks from the callers who might be able to engage with the host. She put a couple of callers on hold, adding notes to a computer program that Hannity could see from the booth: “Sadly, this will hurt respectable gun owners — Aaron from Cincinnati.” “Hatred for these victims is sickening — Joe from Brooklyn.”
McLaughlin glanced up at one of the three overhead TV screens — “They fired that [expletive] on CBS,” she reported — before returning her focus to the dozen open tabs on her laptop screen. An article featured on The Drudge Report claimed that not long after the shooting, a Twitter user with the handle @TheResistANNce, who identified herself in her profile as a “teacher, mother, sister, woman,” said to “pray that only trumptards died” in the Las Vegas attack. McLaughlin copied the link and sent it on to Hannity.
“Here’s where we’re going to go next,” Hannity told his listeners, his hands raised like a football referee calling a field goal. “How is it some people, when a tragedy like this happens, ‘Oh, let’s politicize this!’ Oh, you’ve got a lawyer for CBS who says, ‘No sympathy for Vegas victims; they’re probably Republicans.’ You’ve got — and social media can be beyond vicious — you know, leftists celebrating. We’ve got copies of the tweets. I’ll show you on TV tonight.”
A few hours later, I found Hannity in his greenroom at Fox News headquarters, dressed like a mismatched Ken doll: Up top, a suit jacket and shirt and tie, and down below, where the camera lens wouldn’t find them, jeans and loafers. In the dim light, a heavy coating of foundation and blush gave his face a garish glow. “I know, I know,” he laughed, catching me staring. “I don’t like it either.”
Along with Neil Cavuto and Jon Scott, Hannity is one of the last remaining members of the original 1996 Fox News lineup, and following the sexual-harassment scandals that led to the ouster of its chief executive, Roger Ailes, and the host Bill O’Reilly, the network’s prime-time offerings have largely been remade in Hannity’s image. But because of his radio obligations, Hannity rarely spends much time at Fox, preferring to remain at the radio offices until the last possible moment so he can prepare for his TV show in silence. “I come in to do TV, I do TV and I walk out,” is how he put it to me. Office politics, he said, didn’t interest him.
“Hannity” broadcasts from Studio J, a chasmal chamber that also serves as the backdrop to Dana Perino’s new daytime show. Out on the floor, the techs were making their final preparations. “Two minutes!” someone shouted. Hannity glanced at his phone — he’d just received a text message from John Rich, a country star who performed at the concert in Las Vegas, and who would be interviewed by Hannity. “He’s sending a video of when he honored the military,” Hannity said. “Have that loaded up and ready to roll?”
At the 10-second mark, the techs froze in place. You could hear the hum of the stage lights, the squeak of the camera rigs. “Tonight, America in a state of shock after a madman opened fire on a country-music festival in Las Vegas,” Hannity intoned.
After a recap of the shooting, he moved into a clip of CNN’s Jeff Zeleny pointing out that “a lot of these country music supporters were likely Trump supporters.” (Zeleny had been trying to explain that the shooting would affect a wide “tapestry” of Americans.) Next, there was an impassioned reading of the CBS executive’s Facebook comment. Later, in an interview with the singer Kaya Jones, who also performed at the Las Vegas concert, Hannity paraphrased a portion of @TheResistANNce’s tweet. “We deserve to get shot because we voted for Trump?” Jones fumed via telefeed.
“Where is your human soul to tweet that out?” Hannity said.
As a rhetorical sleight of hand, the exchange was masterful: 10 seconds of decontextualized TV, one cruel Facebook comment and one tweet had been pressed into service as evidence of the moral malignancy of the left as a whole — of half of the entire country. Five days later, an online hoax expert would tell The Washington Post it was unlikely that @TheResistANNce was a real person: A number of discrepancies concerning the creation date of the Twitter account, and the particulars of how the tweet had attracted notice, indicated that it was almost certainly the work of a troll. This likelihood went unmentioned on “Hannity,” which on the night of Oct. 2 drew 3.73 million viewers, more than doubling the audience for CNN’s “Anderson Cooper 360°,” and beating the nearest competitor, MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” by a million viewers. It was one of the most successful shows in “Hannity” history.
As recently as last summer, Hannity told a writer for The Times that he “never claimed to be a journalist.” In one of our recent conversations, he offered a reappraisal: “I’m a journalist,” he told me. “But I’m an advocacy journalist, or an opinion journalist.” He went on, “I want to give my audiences the best shows possible.” The quintessential Hannity program, whether on radio or television, tends to hinge on one or more of the host’s abiding preoccupations: reverence for the military and law enforcement; nostalgia for an America that Hannity feels is slipping away; disdain for the mainstream media; and since the last presidential election, unyielding support for the agenda of Donald Trump. Berry, the senior executive producer of “Hannity,” told me that in shaping the TV show, he and Hannity try to imagine the kind of thing that would appeal to Berry’s family in Oklahoma. “I’m not thinking, Hey, will this make me popular in New York City or in the Hamptons,” Berry says. “Our audience is regular people.”
Hannity rarely grants interviews to mainstream reporters, whom he calls “disgustingly biased, ideological and corrupt.” But he also suffers from a suspicion that his critics willfully misunderstand his motivations. “People don’t know what drives me, what energizes me,” he told me. And in October, when I asked him to show me around his hometown, Franklin Square, on Long Island, he enthusiastically agreed, suggesting a pizzeria off Hempstead Turnpike.
He arrived in golf attire, fresh off 18 holes with his brother-in-law and Bill Shine, the recently deposed co-president of Fox News. Radio and TV have made Hannity fantastically wealthy — Forbes puts his total annual income at roughly $36 million — but as one of his oldest friends, John Gomez, told me, little has changed about Hannity’s personality in the 48 years the two men have known each other. “He’s the same guy who used to drink beers with me behind the movie theater,” Gomez said — still puckish and voluble, still possessed by an energy he seems to have trouble controlling. When he is not at his cathedralic mansion on Long Island, Hannity is frequently at a condo he owns in Florida, where he brings friends like Geraldo Rivera. Sometimes, Rivera told me, “we just sit around and listen to Bo Dietl” — a former Fox News regular and retired homicide detective who recently ran for mayor of New York — “tell war stories from back in the day.”
“I realized early on that there’s no other Sean Hannity than the one you see on television,” Rivera told me. “He’s a fire-breather who breathes fire all day and then sits down and has a drink.” Rivera recalled the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape last year, in which Trump bragged of grabbing women by their genitals. At the time, many political commentators on the right were treating the video as fatal to Trump’s presidential bid; a handful of party figures called on Trump to step aside and put his running mate, Mike Pence, on the top of the ticket. Hannity went in the opposite direction, allowing that what he called the “locker room” comments were wrong, but framing the tape as a politically motivated distraction. “King David had 500 concubines, for crying out loud!” he joked to one panelist. Later, he suggested on Twitter that it was Bill Clinton who should be investigated for sexual misconduct.
It was a pivotal moment for Hannity and for Trump, and it sealed the bond between the two men. “If you look back at those traumas,” Rivera told me, “you’ll see that Hannity steadied the whole of conservative politics during those crucial times. And I think he plays much the same role now. He’s firm in his support of the president, and woe unto you if you don’t see things the same way. He’s a shield.”
Hannity and Trump remain extraordinarily close and speak to each other regularly. President George W. Bush once called Hannity, too, “but Hannity’s and Trump’s personalities are much more in line,” a friend of Hannity’s told me, “and they’ve both come from the media world.” In their conversations, the friend continued, Hannity served as sounding board: “Hannity’s a numbers guy, Trump’s a numbers guy. He thinks there’s nothing worse than bad numbers, and he knows Hannity’s got his finger on the pulse.”
Historically, a chumminess between a president and a journalist isn’t exactly unusual — in the early 1960s, the syndicated columnist Joe Alsop often defended his friend President Kennedy with a vehemence that struck many colleagues as unseemly. What makes the Hannity-Trump alliance so unusual, says Nicole Hemmer, a scholar of media history at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, is the extent of Hannity’s reach: “He’s talking for four hours a day. He’s got social media. He’s empowered by his new status at Fox, this massive institution of Republican power.”
To trace the arc of Hannity’s career is to appreciate how deftly he has leveraged two concurrent trends — the rightward tack of the Republican Party and the expanding influence of conservative media — to become power broker, spokesman and arbiter of the Republican base. “If I’m trying to figure out how to communicate to the American people,” Hannity’s longtime confidant Newt Gingrich told me, “there are very few people who have a better understanding of the broad base, a better intuitive understanding of the kind of folks who elected Trump. He at least matches or surpasses Rush [Limbaugh] in that understanding.”
In recent weeks, Hannity has launched ferocious assaults on Republicans he sees as insufficiently supportive of the president’s agenda, from Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona to the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, whom Hannity, echoing Trump, has called “weak.” Some of the blows have clearly landed. After the Republican senator Ben Sasse, a frequent Trump critic, suggested Trump’s disparagement of press freedom ran afoul of the First Amendment, Hannity said he regretted supporting Sasse. Sasse fired back vehemently on Twitter: “Sorry, Sean — you changed, not me. Some of us still believe in the Constitution.” In October, the former speaker of the House John Boehner told a reporter for Politico Magazine that he had a conversation with Hannity in 2015 in which he told Hannity that he was “nuts.” Hannity tweeted back at Boehner: “I’m sorry you are bitter and u failed!”
In our conversations, Hannity insisted that he hadn’t changed at all; it was the Republicans who had left him. “Reagan talked about bold color differences, no pale pastels,” he said, “and I can’t distinguish between the Republicans and the Democrats right now.” Some Republicans, he argued, “deserve to lose.”
Stephen K. Bannon, the former chief strategist for Trump, told me Hannity is “the single most important voice for the ‘deplorables,’ ” as Trump backers often style themselves. But to his critics, Hannity’s approach is at best dismaying and at worst emblematic of the corrosive, fact-free, “at-any-costs” partisanship that helped propel Donald Trump to power. “It’s dangerous stuff,” Katie Packer Beeson, Mitt Romney’s deputy campaign manager in 2012, told me. “And I do worry that it might be a while before the pendulum swings back the other way.”
In November, news broke that Roy Moore of Alabama, the far-right Republican Senate nominee, was said to have approached, dated or initiated sexual contact with several teenagers — one of whom was 14 — in the 1970s. As had been the case with the “Access Hollywood” tape, it was a crucial (and dangerous) moment for the populist wing of the Republican Party, and for days, Hannity tried to filter and refilter the allegations for his fans.
Declaring that Moore should drop out of the race if the charges were true, Hannity nonetheless initially adopted a skeptical stance: “How do you tell?” he asked on Nov. 9, the day The Washington Post published the first article detailing accusations against Moore. “How are we, the American people, to ascertain what is true and not true?”
On the same program, McLaughlin, Hannity’s executive producer, argued that at least some of the allegations involved consensual contact. “Consensual, that’s true,” Hannity responded. A few hours later, after heated criticism on social media, Hannity told his viewers he’d not been referring to the 14-year-old, who under Alabama law, would be incapable of consent. But in a panel discussion that followed, he prodded a legal analyst, Mercedes Colwin, to explain why a woman might make a false claim of assault.
“Have people lied to get money?” he asked Colwin.
“Undoubtedly,” Colwin said, and went on to argue that actual victims of sexual predators were “very few and far between.”
The blowback was ferocious, and several advertisers, including Keurig and Volvo Car USA, initially threatened to pull spots from “Hannity.” (Colwin, the legal analyst, stepped down from her management role at her law firm.) Hannity’s fans responded by smashing Keurig coffee makers; Hannity offered prizes for the best video footage. When Keurig’s chief executive apologized for how the episode was handled, the host instructed viewers to stop breaking their coffee machines. As more women came forward, and Republican congressional leaders turned on Moore, Hannity, with maximum theatrical flourish, delivered an ultimatum: Moore had 24 hours to explain the inconsistencies in his story.
The demand was straight out of the pro-wrestling playbook: the powerful impresario demanding his foe grovel to be spared. And sure enough, hours before Hannity’s deadline, Moore, who had denied the allegations, argued for a stay of execution. “Dear Sean,” he wrote in an open letter published on Twitter. “I am suffering the same treatment other Republicans have had to endure.” In the end, Hannity announced that he would leave the choice to the voters of Alabama. “They will make the best decision for their state,” he said on Fox News. “It shouldn’t be decided by me.”
As Hemmer, the media scholar, pointed out, Hannity was backed into a corner of his own making. “He doesn’t know which way the wind is going to blow with Moore,” she said, “and Hannity’s got advertising pressure and probably pressure from inside Fox. This was his way out of an impossible situation.” I asked if she thought Hannity recognized he’d crossed a line. “I think what we’re seeing,” she said, “is that as long as the politics are moving in the right direction, the lines don’t really exist.”
Hannity was born in 1961, the youngest of four siblings and the only boy. His parents, Hugh and Lillian, were first-generation Irish-Americans, and grew up in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn and the Bronx, respectively. When Hugh returned from fighting in the Pacific in World War II, he and Lillian sank all their savings into a modest home in Franklin Square, then a redoubt of socially conservative Irish, Italian and Jewish working-class families.
Both Hugh and Lillian worked throughout Sean’s childhood, Hugh as a family-court officer in the city and Lillian as a stenographer and a corrections officer at a county jail. In the evenings, there was a fug of Pall Mall smoke in the air and, occasionally, his mother’s pistol sitting on the kitchen table. Hugh allowed Sean to take his first shooting lesson at 11, inspiring his love of guns; today, Hannity has a concealed-carry permit for his .40 Glock.
Hannity’s older sister Teddy Grisham remembers Lillian, with her halo of white hair, as the family taskmaster. But Hannity told me that “when I got in trouble, my father ripped the belt off and kicked the [expletive] out of me.” Still, he came to admire what he saw as Hugh’s sense of right and wrong. “In many ways,” he told me, “I’m not as good as him.” I asked Hannity to describe himself as a kid. “An [expletive],” he replied. “Honest answer. Not on purpose. I just wasn’t that interested in school. It bored me to tears.” He clashed frequently with the nuns at Sacred Heart Seminary, and by high school, he was cutting class to smoke with his classmates.
One recent afternoon, Hannity drove down the long, curving streets in Franklin Square that he once pedaled as a newspaper-delivery boy, past the park where he manned the concession stand. Recalling his job as a 17-year-old bartender, he told me that work gave him an outlet for his natural restlessness. “I think in my life,” he later said, “I’m just a worker bee.”
We drew to a halt in front of Hannity’s childhood home, on Oaks Drive. It had been 35 years since he was last inside. “I’ll knock if you will,” he said.
The current owner, Barbara Jenik, opened the door, an aggrieved Chihuahua vised into her armpit. “Sean Hannity?” she yelped, squinting into the sun. “I listen to your radio show all the time!” She led us around the side of the house, where decades ago Hannity carved his name into the brick facade. The letters, scrawled in a child’s hand, were still visible. Hannity shook his head disbelievingly. “Do you want to come in?” Jenik asked.
In the kitchen, Jenik’s teenage daughter was reading the newspaper. Hannity looked toward the den. “My parents’ room was here, and my room was in the back,” Hannity said. “That’s where I’d listen to the radio. That was my obsession.”
Lillian and Hugh, originally supporters of John F. Kennedy, had, in the manner of much of white working-class America, gradually shifted their allegiance to the Republican Party, but neither had any interest in talking politics at home. Radio was Hannity’s tutor: From morning till night, he’d tune into local right-wing talkers like Bob Grant and Barry Farber, progenitors of the hyperpoliticized style that Rush Limbaugh would perfect.
Grant is today best remembered for his declaration, in 1991, that the United States was being taken over by “millions of subhumanoids, savages, who really would feel more at home careening along the sands of the Kalahari.” He was adept at toggling between genteel patter, with guests he agreed with, and explosions of indignant fury, at those he didn’t. In one memorable exchange from the late 1980s, he demanded to know the whereabouts of a caller who called him a “bigot,” roaring: “I want to meet you to kill you, you skunk! Get off my phone!”
In Hannity’s youth, “it was never, ‘Turn off the television!’ ” he recalls. “It was: ‘Turn that blankety-blank radio off now! Turn it off!’ And I’d say, ‘Fine,’ and then my parents would leave, and I’d put it back on.”
In the 1980s, after two years of college at New York University and Adelphi University, Hannity and Grisham drove up to Rhode Island, where they opened a wallpaper and design business. Between jobs, he read the novels of Taylor Caldwell, a conservative writer and member of the John Birch Society. Man “was made for rude combat” and “crude ferocity,” Caldwell writes in the novel “Bright Flows the River,” which Hannity, a martial-arts practitioner, cites as a favorite.
In 1989, now living in Santa Barbara, Calif., Hannity began calling in to the local talk station, KTMS, to argue the merits of the Reaganite worldview he’d absorbed from Grant and others. That fall, he applied for an unpaid position at KCSB, the radio station of the University of California, Santa Barbara. As a host, Hannity was quick to test boundaries, to jab at what he regarded as the liberal pieties of the student body. After just a few months on the air, he invited onto his program a Lutheran minister named Gene Antonio, who contended that the government was hiding the truth about the AIDS crisis. “First of all, the rectum is designed to expel feces, not take in a penis, and so what happens is the body rebels against that,” Antonio told Hannity, explaining his theory of why gay men were prone to various diseases.
In a later broadcast, Hannity took a call from Jody May-Chang, the host of a KCSB show called “Gay and Lesbian Perspectives.” Hannity asked if it was true that May-Chang had a child with another woman. It was, May-Chang said. Hannity shot back that he felt sorry for the kid. “I think anyone that believes, anyone listening to this show that believes homosexuality is just a normal lifestyle has been brainwashed,” Hannity concluded.
Richard Flacks, then the station’s faculty adviser, says that “it was this specific moment when he deals with Jody that was something more than repulsive speech.” After the studio took the young host off the air, Hannity contacted a lawyer from the American Civil Liberties Union and successfully petitioned the university for a second chance. Then, in an act of characteristic bravado, he called for a public apology and an extra hour on the air every day. He was turned down.
Hannity told me his removal was “deserved”; in retrospect, he said, his statements were “ignorant and embarrassing.” His views on same-sex marriage, he stressed, were now “libertarian,” and he has gay friends. But it was the start of a pattern that would repeat throughout his radio and TV career: Poke, prod, provoke, step back and do it all over again. Bill Dunnavant, Hannity’s boss at his first professional radio gig, in Huntsville, Ala., recalled turning on the radio one afternoon and hearing Hannity engaging in a contentious live interview with the madam of a Nevada brothel. Dunnavant told me he pulled over at the nearest pay phone. “Don’t you ever do that again!” he shouted at Hannity. “This is a family station.”
Hannity told me, “You know, the only way to be successful — it took me a little while to figure it out — is you’ve got to be yourself on the radio.” His ratings slowly improved, and in 1992, he accepted a job at WGST in Atlanta, one of the largest markets in the south. At WGST, he alternated condemnation of the White House-bound Bill Clinton, an early Hannity bête noire, with lighter fare, like a one-off April Fools’ Day segment in which he prodded young callers to vow not to engage in premarital sex. He also began periodically traveling to New York to appear as a political commentator on daytime programs hosted by Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael. The segments were short, but the camera liked Hannity’s blocky features and his forceful delivery.
In 1996, Hannity’s agent, David Limbaugh, got word of a new cable network being funded by the Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Limbaugh had an inside line — the network’s head, Roger Ailes, had helped start his brother Rush’s television show. He suggested Hannity apply.
A few hours later, Hannity was in Ailes’s office in New York. Their conversation was short and straightforward: “Roger goes, ‘Great, you’re going to do a debate show,’ ” Hannity remembers. “And that’s all it took. My life changed forever.”
Hannity’s program was given the all-important 9 p.m. slot at Fox News, but through the summer of 1996, as the network edged closer to its debut, the show still had no co-host. Ailes brought in a range of options, including Joe Conason, a seasoned investigative reporter who was then the executive editor of and a liberal columnist for The New York Observer. Conason did a screen test but was never asked back; eventually, the job went to the mild-mannered Alan Colmes. (Colmes died in February of lymphoma.) “I came to the conclusion that Roger wanted a handsome, smart conservative on one side and a nerdy liberal on the other,” says Patrick Halpin, a commentator and frequent guest on “Hannity & Colmes.” “Alan, God rest his soul, was smart and knowledgeable, but he wasn’t Joe, who would’ve been too strong for Hannity.”
For his producer, Hannity proposed Bill Shine, whom he met while subbing in as a host on a short-lived cable network called NewsTalk Television. “The worst thing you can do to Sean Hannity,” Shine told me, “is remind him of his first day.” Hannity was stiff and “petrified,” in his own recollection, prone to tensing up in front of the camera. At one point, Hannity and Shine ran into each other in a parking garage on 48th Street, near the Fox headquarters. Shine asked Hannity if he thought the show would last five years. “Five years would be great,” Hannity said.
In 1997, Hannity took a nighttime radio slot at WABC — the show went into national syndication the day before the 9/11 attacks — and learned to use the radio program as a workshop for television. On WABC, he could afford to float new ideas, test new lines of attack. By the next day, in time for the start of “Hannity & Colmes,” the material had been sharpened and refined into talking points he could fire at his Fox audience. It was in this manner — percussively, repeatedly — that he helped bolster the case for an invasion of Iraq and chipped away at Republican support for a bipartisan 2007 path-to-citizenship bill that later perished in the United States Senate.
When Colmes left “Hannity & Colmes” in 2009, the program was rebranded as just “Hannity,” and dressed up in American-flag-inspired graphics. Hannity credits Ailes for sticking with him long enough to see him prosper on television. The Fox C.E.O., Hannity told me, “was a father figure,” and in 2016, Hannity vociferously defended his boss in the face of sexual-harassment allegations. (With Hannity, as with Trump, loyalty is paramount, and although he and the former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly have not always gotten along, “Hannity” was O’Reilly’s first stop at the network after being fired from Fox this year in response to allegations of sexual harassment.)
“Sean definitely led the ‘Come on, guys, we can’t let our boss go down’ group,” Geraldo Rivera told me. “But Sean is also the one who ultimately said to me, ‘From what I’ve seen and heard, some of the allegations are true.’ ” Hannity told me of Ailes: “You know, sometimes people are complicated in life, sometimes it’s not black and white. Some of the most brilliant people I have met in my life — something I don’t have to worry about; I consider myself pretty average — the most brilliant people, often their blessing can be their curse. Do I believe everything that was said? No. Do I think maybe some of it is true? Maybe.” He added, “But if you assume for a second some of it was true, that’s a side of him I never knew, never saw.”
As a broadcaster, Hannity has thrived as a champion of insurrection. In the early 1990s, he rose to regional prominence as a staunch backer of Gingrich’s crusade to wrest control of Congress from the Democrats; after joining WABC in 1997, he rode the Monica Lewinsky scandal to the top of the New York talk-radio charts. And in 2009, he threw his support behind the Tea Party, a movement that inspired his early support for Trump. He became cable TV’s most ardent booster of the movement, giving ample airtime to various Tea Party figures and broadcasting his television and radio programs from a Tea Party rally in downtown Atlanta. “It was exciting,” Hannity recalls. “There was so much energy, and they were talking about all the [expletive] I’d been talking about for years: Small government, lower taxes.”
Hannity’s overt backing of the Tea Party was not unique at Fox News. But he wasn’t just backing the movement on air: He was also participating in fund-raising activities and allowing his image to be attached to promotional mailers for groups like the Tea Party Patriots, which was also an advertiser on his radio show. And occasionally he pushed into fringier terrain, as when in 2011 he aired a television interview with Trump, then toying with running for president the following year, during Trump’s crusade to force President Obama to release his birth certificate. Obama, Trump said, “could have easily have come from Kenya, or someplace.”
“The issue could go away in a minute,” Hannity interjected. “Just show the certificate.”
At least publicly, Ailes did not always seem comfortable with Hannity’s association with the Tea Party, and in 2010, he forbade Hannity to tape his Fox show from the stage of a Tea Party fund-raiser in Ohio. (Hannity says he was unaware that the group had charged for tickets.) But according to a source at Fox News, Ailes’s private reaction was considerably more measured: “Look, Roger was smart — he knew how much money was being generated by the opinion-side guys versus the news-side guys.” Hannity was called into Ailes’s office and sent on his way with a promise not to involve the show in any future fund-raising gigs.
The success of the Tea Party movement, Hannity told me recently, made him certain that if Obama-era Democratic rule were going to be toppled, it would not be with more establishment Republican politics. In 2015, after observing Mitt Romney’s sound thumping in the previous presidential election, he decided to fly around the country to secure the first interview with Republican contenders, preferably immediately after each one announced. He chartered flights himself, spending almost a million dollars in travel expenses. He saw it as “an investment in the business.”
“I’d take friends, my staff, whatever,” he told me. “I’d always fill the seats.” He gravitated early to the Tea Party favorite, Ted Cruz. “But then I’d go to a Trump rally,” he told me. “You only had to open your eyes and see the enthusiasm.”
Among Hannity’s critics, his relationship with Trump is frequently depicted as nakedly and sycophantically transactional — one career entertainer grabbing onto the coattails of another and hanging on for dear life. But people close to the president and Hannity say this caricature vastly oversimplifies the complicated and evolving alliance between the two men and misunderstands the degree to which Trump, as candidate and president, has come to Hannity’s positions, rather than the other way around.
“A big part of how Trump gauges how things are going is how they play out on television in particular,” a Trump campaign official told me. And long before he began his presidential bid in the lobby of Trump Tower in June 2015, Trump was a frequent viewer of “Hannity.” “From that first trip down the escalator at Trump Tower,” the official went on, “Trump was able to literally speak like he was on ‘Hannity.’ ”
As the primaries gave way to the general election, Hannity and Trump’s campaign staff were in touch on an almost-daily basis. “Occasionally, we’d talk on Sean’s show knowing Trump was watching,” Gingrich told me. “The two most effective ways of communicating with Trump are ‘Fox & Friends’ and ‘Hannity.’ ”
John Gomez, Hannity’s old friend, who traveled with him on several legs of his Republican primary tour, recalled that Hannity saw something of himself in the president. “Sean knows that there’s nothing better in radio than that shocking moment, that moment that freezes you,” Gomez told me. Trump did what other politicians wouldn’t. “They’re afraid to state a controversial point. That bugs Sean.”
Bill Shine told me that when it came to the opinion side of the Fox News operation, Hannity was “early on, pretty [much] first” when it came to vocal support of Trump. This put the host at odds with a sizable portion of the Fox News brass, along with Rupert Murdoch, who, according to Murdoch’s biographer, Michael Wolff, had advised Ailes to “tilt to anyone but Trump,” even if that anyone was Hillary Clinton. The vehemently anti-Clinton Hannity was not about to let that happen. (Ailes, after leaving Fox News, later joined the Trump campaign as a debate adviser.)
Hannity spoke directly to Trump during the campaign. “I was a little bit of a liaison,” he says, between the Trump camp and Fox News. In August 2015, Hannity’s colleague Megyn Kelly asked Trump at a Fox News-sponsored debate to account for his derogatory comments about women. “I say this just very objectively: I thought the question was patently unfair,” Hannity told me. In “Devil’s Bargain,” his book on Bannon and Trump, the Bloomberg Businessweek correspondent Joshua Green writes that Trump phoned Hannity the weekend after the debate, threatening to boycott Fox. Shortly thereafter, he tweeted: “Roger Ailes just called. He is a great guy & assures me that ‘Trump’ will be treated fairly on @FoxNews.”
Kelly has since decamped to NBC, but the fissures exposed during the 2016 campaign have widened. “Back in the day, Roger had this saying: ‘You don’t piss inside the tent,’ ” a longtime Fox employee told me. But since Ailes’s death, in May, news-side stars have sniped publicly at hosts like Hannity. In November, Shepard Smith used his afternoon show to throw cold water on the theory — one given extensive airtime by Hannity — that Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, orchestrated a sale of uranium to Russia in exchange for a donation to the Clinton Foundation. (Through a spokeswoman, Smith denied he’d been referring to Hannity, and said he and Hannity “respected one another’s roles at the channel.”) And Chris Wallace, the veteran anchor, recently complained, in comments widely seen as directed at Hannity, about some of his colleagues’ propensity for attacking the rest of the media. “Bad form,” Wallace told The Associated Press.
The problem for Fox News is that while Hannity has risen to become the top ratings-earner of the nightly lineup, he is also a figure prone to barreling headfirst into the murky territory between opinion and out-and-out conspiracy theorism. And Fox executives frequently have been forced to juggle advertiser discontent with the need to ensure that Hannity, does not leave for a rival network, like Sinclair Broadcast Group, a right-leaning owner of local TV stations.
In November, Alvin Chang, a writer for Vox, crunched data from two years of Hannity TV transcripts and concluded that Hannity was, in his mentions of topics like “the deep state” and the uranium deal, the media’s “top conspiracy theorist.” In our conversations, Hannity rejected the label, calling it a “typical left-wing attack. My whole career I’ve pursued the truth and have been proven right time after time while my colleagues are often dead wrong.” And to watch Hannity regularly is to observe how distant the host is from a figure like the Infowars proprietor Alex Jones. Jones endorses theories; Hannity almost never does, leaving that job to his guests. It is a dance that has the effect of nourishing the more wild-eyed beliefs of his fans while providing Hannity a degree of plausible deniability.
This approach was on full display during the 2016 election, when Hannity invited a doctor to analyze Hillary Clinton’s health on the basis of video footage. (“That looks like violent, out of control movements on her part,” Hannity suggested hopefully.) And it was most infamously evident in his coverage of the case of Seth Rich, a young staff member at the Democratic National Committee murdered in July 2016, in what Washington police say was a street robbery gone bad. But others, like the founder of WikiLeaks, Julian Assange, soon began suggesting that Rich had been killed in retaliation for the leaking of sensitive internal D.N.C. emails. This February, a prominent Trump supporter, Ed Butowsky, offered to bankroll a former Washington homicide detective and Fox News contributor named Rod Wheeler to look into the case; according to court documents in a continuing federal lawsuit brought by Wheeler, he and Butowsky later met with Sean Spicer, then the White House press secretary, and briefed him on the story.
For Hannity, Wheeler’s investigation did double duty as drama and political cudgel: If Rich was involved in the leaks, then the contention that Russia had undertaken the hack on behalf of Trump would be discredited. And on May 16, he invited Wheeler onto “Hannity.” “Is there any evidence,” Hannity asked, that Rich “might have been disgruntled by the treatment of Bernie Sanders and the unfairness, and that the fix was in, to put Hillary in that position” as the Democratic presidential candidate, “and maybe had evidence of that?” Wheeler demurred, but said that his investigation had uncovered proof that Rich was “having problems” at the D.N.C. “So connect the dots here,” Wheeler suggested. (In his lawsuit, Wheeler claims that the Trump administration and Fox News conspired to push the Rich story on air. Butowsky denies many allegations within the lawsuit and has filed a motion to have it dismissed.)
After Rich’s family demanded an apology and a retraction from Fox News, Hannity stopped mentioning Rich on the air, and he declined to discuss the case directly with me. But he has also tweeted that he is still looking into the circumstances of Rich’s death: “Ok TO BE CLEAR, I am closer to the TRUTH than ever. Not only am I not stopping, I am working harder. Updates when available.” He visited Assange at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, and he told me that he has continued to exchange messages with Kim Dotcom, a New Zealand-based fugitive internet entrepreneur and another proponent of the Rich-as-D.N.C.-leaker story. “There is a much deeper story yet to be heard,” he said.
Hannity’s intransigence is Trumpian in its effectiveness: By backing off on reporting on Fox News about Rich, but maintaining his contention that there “is something going on,” he is effectively having it both ways. At least until a killer is found, he will never have to admit he is wrong. And Trump will continue to be the beneficiary.
One Sunday evening this fall, Hannity sat in the back room of Chris & Tony’s, an Italian restaurant in a strip mall off Jericho Turnpike, in Syosset, a Long Island town. Hannity visits Chris & Tony’s regularly, and he ordered without looking at the menu — baked clams, Kobe beef meatballs, a cheese-covered dish he informed me was known as Heroin Chicken. He poked at the meat hesitantly. At 55, Hannity is increasingly worried about his weight; he recently switched to light beer, and he has upped the frequency of his workouts with his martial-arts trainer, Glenn Rubin.
“We have days we call ‘keeping it real,’ ” he said. “And keeping it real is like this guy who’s so big and so strong, and he’s coming up to me all throughout an hour-and-15-minute session and putting me in chokeholds, seeing how I respond to a gun to my head. You know, how do I deal with blades? And then another day is pain day, and then literally you put out your arms, ‘Boom, boom, boom.’ ” He mimed a hammer-punching motion against his forearm and stomach. “It’s made me stronger than I’ve ever been in my life.”
A waiter appeared with two more pints of beer. When he left, Hannity gestured toward him. “I’m no different to all the service businesses,” he said. It was a theme he returned to frequently, his enduring fixation on consumer demand — what made people angry or happy, what turned them on or off. Hannity, who was recently inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame, told me he continues to pay for his own focus-group surveys of his radio and television shows: What he seems to fear more than anything else is the prospect of a fan picking up the remote.
For now, he has little to worry about. During the Moore scandal, he ascended to the top of the cable-news ratings heap. In the weeks after our first meeting, I kept in close touch with Hannity by text. As John Gomez, Hannity’s longtime friend, had warned me, Hannity appears to be constitutionally unable not to answer his phone, and the messages often arrived at night — “asleep at 11 p.m.?” read one chiding text — or even on commercial breaks from his television show.
Sometimes, Hannity would preview segments to me, offering the broad arguments that he would refine and repeat that night. “Remember trump lost VA and NJ. No shock,” he texted after Republican losses in races for governor in those states; that night on the air, he repeated the words almost verbatim. “Massive boomerang coming back on Dems on Russia,” he texted before a segment on the purported uranium deal; a few days later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s office announced it would consider appointing a special counsel to look into the supposed deal. The influence obviously thrilled him, as did the reactions it could provoke. “I say it,” he texted, “and it’s gone. Then liberals bubble and fizz and give off steam like Alka-Seltzer in water.”
In October, Hannity flew to Middletown, Pa., to interview Trump in advance of a rally to gin up support for tax reform. Sitting inches from the president, Hannity covered the biggest issues of the day, serving as rudder and prompt — steering Trump gently to friendly terrain. The new tax cuts, Trump said, would be “massive”; working-class Pennsylvanians were “incredible”; health care reform would be “great”; and Democratic policies were “terrible,” an adjective the president went on to apply to Colin Kaepernick, the education system and the urban crime rate.
Hannity, smiling solicitously throughout, let the roar of the crowd stand in for his response.
“I will say this,” Trump told his friend, before leaving the stage. “You have been so great. And I’m very proud of you.”
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