Sean Hannity Is Trump's Shadow Press Secretary

The Fox star finally dispenses with the polite fiction that he is anything more than the president’s puppet.

Jim Watson / AFP / Getty / Katie Martin / The Atlantic

On Monday morning, Sean Hannity, the talk-radio host and the star of the Fox News Channel’s angriest and most watched prime-time show, defended himself in a tweet. “In spite of reports,” Hannity insisted, “I will be doing a live show from Cape Girardeau and interviewing President Trump before the rally. To be clear, I will not be on stage campaigning with the President. I am covering final rally for my show. Something I have done in every election in the past.”

The tweet was, it would turn out, a work not just of fiction, but of fan fiction. Hannity, after ending his show on Monday evening—an episode that was broadcast (this part was accurate) from Donald Trump’s rally in Cape Girardeau, Missouri—did the precise thing he had promised he wouldn’t: Beckoned by the president, Hannity strode onto the presidential stage. The line dividing the news commentator from the newsmaker, one that had for so long been stretched to precarious tautness, finally snapped. “They’re very special,” the president said as Hannity and another Fox guest, Jeanine Pirro, crossed over from the screen to the stage. “They’ve done an incredible job for us. They’ve been with us from the beginning.”

The Fox News Channel, wanting to preserve the news in its name, has been at pains for years to insist that it is both more and less than it is. The network has attempted to live within a paradox—defining itself both as a typical news network and as a news network that is somehow not a member of “the media”—which is also to say that it has attempted to have it both ways. Hannity, however, has complicated that. The fact that the president of the United States reportedly watches Fox News in lieu of reading White House–prepared briefing papers has complicated that. The fact that Hannity offers Trump advice complicates that. And Monday’s performance further complicated that. Here was Hannity, his network’s most popular and most emblematic star, shedding the illusion of distance between Fox’s air and the White House’s. Here he was, on the eve of one of the most consequential elections in an American generation, proclaiming himself to be what of course he has been all along: an extension of the White House communications shop. A loyal servant. A happy warrior. A press secretary by another means.

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Hannity’s election-eve show began as every Hannity show does: with an opening monologue. This one, as many such monologues will, repeated White House talking points. “The Trump agenda has been paying massive dividends in just two short years,” Hannity said. “The economy is booming, 4.5 million new jobs,  4.3 fewer Americans on food stamps, 4 million Americans lifted out of poverty … historic unemployment for women in the workplace.”

As he spoke, a list of bullet-pointed Trumpian achievements scrolled on the screen next to him: references to the Supreme Court seating of Neil Gorsuch, to the tax cuts, to the dissolution of the Iran nuclear deal. Hannity praised Trump’s “addressing [of] the looming crisis in North Korea,” his “pulling us out of the job-killing Paris accord,” his emphasis on “peace through strength.” One of his bullet points listed “successful trip to Asia.” It offered no further explanation.

“Promises made, promises kept,” Hannity said in summary, smiling beatifically, repeating the White House’s timeworn refrain.

Donald Trump has an official press secretary; she is constrained, however, by the polite idea that she serves the American press as well as the American president. Sean Hannity has no such limitation. His role as a professional opinion-haver frees him: to spread conspiracy theories; to enthuse; to condemn; to fearmonger; to present an hour-long campaign rally cloaked in the costume of a news show. It frees the president, too: to use Hannity to spread his message, a direct line from the presidential mind to millions of viewers, unalloyed and pure and unfiltered by the fact-checks and contexts that professional reporters would provide.

As Monday’s episode of Hannity went on—all of it a prelude to Hannity’s conversation with the president himself—the host returned to his greatest hits: mockery of President Obama (“Barack Hussein Obama,” Hannity reminded the audience); conspiracy-inflected indignation leveled against the opposing party (“Democrats have some pretty extreme ulterior motives—I have been sounding the alarm about this for months right here on this show”); conspiracy-inflected indignation leveled against specific members of that party (Maxine Waters, “Shifty Schiff,” “Bozo O’Rourke”). He excoriated the “fake news,” gesturing toward the journalists gathered to cover the rally for their respective outlets—including reporters from Fox News.

The president, even before he made his appearance in the arena, was present nonetheless, his crudeness and his casual cruelty channeled through the mouth of his loyal friend. As Hannity spoke, a chyron below him read PRESIDENT TRUMP’S CLOSING ARGUMENT: VOTE REPUBLICAN AND CONTINUE THE JOBS BOOM. The message was a verbatim repetition of a headline published earlier in the day on an op-ed bylined by the president. Somewhere in the crowd behind Hannity, a singer warbled the plaintive notes of “Memory” from the musical Cats.

Soon enough—after Hannity interviewed David Limbaugh, Rush’s brother, and after Limbaugh noted that “we have made so much progress in making America great again, restoring its prosperity and strength,” and after the crowd chanted “U-S-A, U-S-A,” and after Sean Spicer, the former White House press secretary, made an appearance, and after the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” played in the arena—the president arrived.

Trump and Hannity chatted backstage. Fox had billed the conversation as a “powerful interview”; it was neither powerful nor, strictly, an interview. It consisted of Hannity repeating the talking points, apparently dazzled by the star in his midst, and the president, bringing it all full circle, agreeing with them.

And then: Hannity’s show ended. The president called the host onstage. Initially surprised—“I had no idea you were going to invite me up here,” he said, motioning toward the presidential seal on the stage’s lectern—Hannity obliged. He repeated more talking points. The old and awkward fictions fell away.

Hannity’s appearance with the president was not depicted on his show. It was aired instead on C-SPAN and was recorded by the White House reporters who were on hand to document the doings of the evening. You could interpret that as a matter of logistics—Trump ran late, and so Hannity’s show did, too—or as bashfulness on the part of Fox News as its host, once again, crossed a line that Fox itself had drawn in the sand. In 2010, the Tea Party began advertising that Hannity would make an appearance at one of its fund-raising rallies; Fox said it had not approved the arrangement. In 2016, Hannity participated in a video for the Trump campaign; Fox said it told him not to do that again. In 2018, Hannity joined Trump onstage at a rally; Fox said it was “an unfortunate distraction.”

But ratings are power, and partisanship sells, and this is a time of tumbling norms, and there is a certain epic romance to it all: Donald Quixote and his trusty Sancho, two errant knights, questing and tilting across the American landscape, telling themselves, and the world, what they need to. Promises made, promises kept. Sean Hannity, of course, is not the sum of Fox News; the network has reporters who still claim to abide by the old tagline of We report, you decide. Martha MacCallum, who will be co-anchoring the network’s election coverage on Tuesday evening with her fellow anchor Bret Baier, has insisted that it is a misreading to see Fox as “state-run television.” Baier has said that it “pains” him to hear his network described in those terms. This week, Fox refused to air the racist ad that the administration had created in a last-ditch effort to foment fear among voters. Last week, its anchor Shep Smith made news by debunking the White House’s narrative about the group of migrants making their way northward from Central America: “There is no invasion,” Smith said on Fox’s air. “No one is coming to get you. There is nothing at all to worry about.”

What is notable, however, is that Smith’s gesture made news at all. The story became a story because it was deemed shocking that a Fox reporter would use facts to question White House spin. Fox is not Hannity; still, it bends ever more Hannity-ward. Tucker Carlson, with his just asking questions here flirtations with white nationalism. Laura Ingraham, with her insistence that children in cages, wailing for parents the administration had taken from them, were merely actors.

There was speculation this summer that the Trump administration might nominate Jeanine Pirro to the Supreme Court, to fill the seat now occupied by Brett Kavanaugh. It was, in its context, not unreasonable: The revolving door between the White House and Fox News headquarters spins so quickly that it becomes more and more difficult, in all the whirling, to tell where the newsmaking ends and the news reporting begins. Bill Shine, the former Fox executive, was promoted earlier this year to run communications for the Trump administration. Shine was in the crowd in Missouri on Monday evening. After Hannity concluded his conversation with the president, it was reported, the White House communications director offered Hannity a high five—a friendly reward for a job well done.