Hannity wins as Trump’s lone defender
Republican lawmakers denounced him. Newt Gingrich demanded a do-over. And the hosts of “Fox & Friends,” President Donald Trump’s favorite morning television show, gave him a verbal slap on the wrist for his performance during a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The mass desertion by some of the president’s stalwart allies made his remaining defenders — Sean Hannity and a handful of right-wing media personalities — all the more conspicuous in the wake of Trump’s Helsinki appearance by virtue of being virtually alone.
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Leading them all was Hannity, who has shadowed Trump across the globe for high-stakes international summits to provide him with a friendly interview platform moments after their conclusion. He was in Singapore last month to interview the president after his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and he was in Helsinki on Monday to shield him from bipartisan criticism that he had disgraced the U.S. by refusing to stand up to Putin.
“You were very strong at the end of that press conference,” Hannity told Trump, as he conducted the first interview following the afternoon news conference. Moments earlier, the president had told reporters he accepted Putin’s denials about meddling in the 2016 election even though his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, said otherwise.
Though some right-wing radio hosts offered their own defenses of the president, the Hannity-Trump interview stood out as a singular safe space for the president on cable news, underscoring the significance of Hannity’s platform for the maintenance of the Trump brand. The relationship is mutually beneficial: Monday night’s interview drew about 4 million viewers, squashing the cable news competition and, in turn, providing the president with a megaphone that broadcasts directly to his political base.
Friends of Hannity say he is no longer driven primarily by money — Forbes estimated that he makes $36 million annually — but by his belief, shared with associates, that the country is at a tipping point. He and the president have forged a friendship that some have likened to a wacky version of the relationship between the late New York Times reporter Scotty Reston and President John F. Kennedy, who pressed Reston publicly to make the case for the policies he wanted to enact.
Like Trump and Hannity, who have been spotted together numerous times at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Reston and Kennedy spent time together — in their case, at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. Reston recounted in his memoir, “Deadline,” Kennedy asking him to make a case in the Times for the U.S. to respond militarily if the Soviets tried to block American access to Berlin. The president himself ultimately cleared the language used in a Reston piece that made the argument.
Hannity’s coziness with the president, as well as that of other Fox News hosts with Trump, has at times discomfited the executives trying to steer the network in the post-Roger Ailes era. The channel is now led by CEO Suzanne Scott, and Fox News executives have at times pushed its hosts to distance themselves from the president, according to people familiar with their deliberations. On at least one occasion, executives asked a group of Fox personalities who had been invited to dine at the White House to decline the invitation, hoping to fend off the appearance that the network has inched too close to the White House.
“All it is is fear and nervousness about the whole situation,” a former network producer said of the proximity of so many of the network’s stars to the White House, including a romantic relationship between Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment on the record for this article.