In front of a national audience of perhaps 100 million people, Donald Trump tonight couldn’t stop talking about one television personality. “Sean Hannity said very strongly, to me and other people, he’s willing to say, but nobody wants to call him, I was against the war. He said you used to have fights with me, because Sean was in favor of the war,” said Trump.
According to a quickie transcript, Trump mentioned Hannity’s name at least four times. The mentions came as one of the 2016 campaign’s perpetual issues resurfaced: More than a year ago, in the thick of the Republican presidential primary, Trump attempted to establish some distance between himself and the field by denouncing the invasion of Iraq hatched by the administration of George W. Bush back in March 2003. He said it over and over — in September 2015, in February 2016 and many times betwixt and between. He loves this particular position so much that evidence to the contrary hasn’t moved him from it.
The public record rebutting him is significant. In September 2002, radio host Howard Stern asked Trump whether he supported the possible invasion. “Yeah, I guess so,” responded Trump. “You know, I wish it was, I wish the first time it was done correctly.” Months later, he failed to denounce the pending invasion in a chat with Fox News host Neil Cavuto. The many, many fact-checkers who’ve looked at the matter can find no evidence that Trump publicly opposed the war before the invasion.
That absence of facts has hurt Trump as he has attempted to convince the American public that he, indeed, did oppose the invasion. He has cited an interview with Esquire, though that interview took place in 2004, long after the invasion. So tonight he resorted to the “Sean Hannity” defense. No, this defense doesn’t involve citing transcripts from Hannity’s show back in 2002 or 2003. Given the lack of transcribed evidence, the Erik Wemple Blog asked Hannity earlier this month about this claim by Trump. He responded this way:
So these were private discussions. Robert Draper, a writer for the New York Times Magazine and National Geographic, also asked Hannity about these talks:
No matter what he says, there’s good reason to doubt Donald Trump. Fact-checkers and those would never qualify as such have proven and recited his bulging set of distortions, falsehoods and lies. Now we’re asked to believe that Trump, in private talks with Hannity, voiced his opposition to the Iraq War, even though he voiced another position altogether in public.
And under other circumstances, we’d be happy to accept the input of a person like Hannity as the final word on the matter. After all, he works at a major cable news network and commands a very large prime time audience.
Yet! Hannity in this election cycle has allowed himself to become, in essence, an arm of the Trump campaign. He has not only given Trump kissy interview after kissy interview after kissy interview. He has not only paid to fly Newt Gingrich to Indiana so that he could interview for the vice presidential nomination. He has not only advised Trump on his campaign. But he has also starred in a video promotion for the Trump campaign:
One of the reasons I’m supporting Donald Trump this year is No. 1, he’s going to put originalists on the Supreme Court, people that believe in fidelity to the Constitution, separation of powers, coequal branches of government. He’s a guy that will vet refugees to keep Americans safe. And of course he’s gonna build that wall. He says he’s gonna have Mexico pay for it. That’s fine, as long as we secure the country and of course we don’t want people competing for jobs. He said he will eliminate Obamacare, make us energy-independent. And as somebody who’s been a marksman since I’m 11 years old, protecting our Second Amendment rights are paramount to me.
When it saw that its anchor had so directly assisted the Trump campaign, Fox News admonished him: “We had no knowledge that Sean Hannity was participating in this,” said a Fox News spokesperson, “and he will not be doing anything along these lines for the remainder of the election.”
Perhaps not, but no amount of post-hoc scolding will erase Hannity’s record of collaboration with the Trump campaign. And that very record licenses us all to wonder just what was said in those long-ago late-night conversations between Hannity and Trump. If indeed they ever happened.