One week ago, Fox News host Sean Hannity kicked off his program with a riff on the news of the day. “President Trump’s long-time personal attorney, Michael Cohen, just had his office, his home, and his hotel that he was staying in raided by the FBI today in an early morning raid. Now, what that means is [special counsel Robert S.] Mueller’s witch-hunt investigation is now a runaway train that is clearly careening off the tracks,” said Hannity.
Details followed: Hannity told viewers that the raids stemmed from a referral from Mueller to federal prosecutors based in New York, where Cohen, the longtime “fixer” for Trump, has long done his work. “Now, the FBI reportedly seized records related to Cohen’s payment to this porn star Stormy Daniels, among other items.” The host proceeded to rant about the miscarriage of justice over which Mueller and the Justice Department are allegedly presiding, before moving on to rap the media for splurging on the Cohen-raid story. “Over the weekend, according to multiple reports on the ground, anti-Assad suburb of Damascus was subject to a deadly chemical weapons attack,” said Hannity.
Now we know what Hannity had omitted from his coverage. As Bloomberg and other outlets reported on Monday afternoon, a New York court proceeding has divulged that Hannity himself has been a client of Cohen. The proceeding, adjudicated by federal judge Kimba Wood, arises from the raids against Cohen. “A gasp was heard in the courtroom when a Cohen lawyer disclosed the name of the third client: Sean Hannity,” noted Bloomberg.
Hannity didn’t want this disclosure to surface. “A Cohen lawyer, Stephen Ryan, had said that the third client, whom Cohen initially would not name, told Cohen over the weekend not to allow his name to get out,” noted Bloomberg. “The person is publicly prominent and Ryan offered instead to put the name in a sealed envelope for the judge, saying the client has said he’ll appeal if Judge Wood orders his name disclosed.”
To understand from whom Hannity seeks legal advice, consider what Cohen once told a reporter who was preparing a hard-hitting story during the campaign on Trump and ex-wife Ivana Trump:
“I will make sure that you and I meet one day while we’re in the courthouse. And I will take you for every penny you still don’t have. And I will come after your Daily Beast and everybody else that you possibly know,” Cohen said. “So I’m warning you, tread very f[–––]ing lightly, because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f[–––]ing disgusting. You understand me?”
“You write a story that has Mr. Trump’s name in it, with the word ‘rape,’ and I’m going to mess your life up… for as long as you’re on this frickin’ planet… you’re going to have judgments against you, so much money, you’ll never know how to get out from underneath it,” he added.
Cohen also masterminded hush payments to women who’d allegedly had affairs with Trump. Meaning: His expertise lies in intimidation and the like. So what did he do, specifically, for Hannity?
According to Hannity himself, not much: “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective. I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third party,” said Hannity in a statement distributed by Fox News.
Whatever its nature, the association raises more questions about Hannity’s role at Fox News than can be addressed right here and now. Surely he and his backers will leap to the common defense that Hannity doesn’t claim to be a journalist and is thus not bound by the usual ethical considerations of the profession. Yet somehow, the “Fox News” logo remains in place during Hannity’s broadcasts:
“News” organizations employ journalists.
Whether formal or informal, the apparent legal relationship between Cohen and Hannity raises obvious issues. Would Hannity be able to report on wrongdoing by Cohen? Would he be able to report on advice from Cohen that led the president astray? Would he be able to report fairly on the actions of the Trump Organization?
Of course not. The relationship merely reduces whatever independence Hannity had preserved from his buddies in Trump World — which, as we already know, was pea-size to begin with. As reported by this blog, Hannity during the presidential election actually participated in a video promotion for the Trump campaign. He paid for a vice presidential candidate to be flown to an interview in Indiana. And he provided advice in his numerous phone chats with the president and his people.
So, it’s possible that this Cohen news is moot from an ethical perspective: Hannity is way too compromised to compromise himself further. With each revelation, though, it’s clear that Hannity’s programming is driven more by personal ties and loyalties than by whatever principles he may retain at this point.
“If he only defends Trump as a matter of opinion, that’s what editorial writers do,” says Stephen Gillers, a professor of legal ethics at NYU School of Law and author of the forthcoming “The Press under Fire: Protecting the Future of Investigative Reporting.” “If his opinion can be or seem to be influenced by an allegiance to Trump or Cohen, then he’s crossing a line.” Having long ago obliterated that line, though, Hannity can no longer see it.