“Promises made, promises kept,” said Sean Hannity, echoing President Trump’s campaign slogan. And with that, the Fox News host broke a promise of his own.
At 11 a.m. on Monday, Hannity assured his nearly 4 million Twitter followers that he would not join Trump on stage that evening in Cape Girardeau, Mo., and that he would not campaign with him. While the Trump team described him as a “special guest,” the top-rated host maintained that he was simply covering the president’s final rally for his show. “Something I have done in every election in the past,” he added.
About 12 hours later, though, he delivered a lengthy campaign advertisement for the president, and for the Republican Party, and then joined Trump onstage to recite his achievements and thank him.
It was a remarkably swift about-face, though hardly a surprising one for a commentator who has assiduously cultivated Trump’s approval. In 2016, he appeared in a promotional video for the media mogul’s campaign, enumerating his reasons for supporting the Republican candidate, from his plan to “put originalists on the Supreme Court” to his promise to “vet refugees.”
Since then, Hannity has not just backed the president’s agenda. He has also parroted his rhetoric. For instance, he has denounced journalists for presenting an unvarnished view of the administration.
“By the way, all those people in the back are fake news,” Hannity told the roaring audience in Cape Girardeau.
The small city on the banks of the Mississippi River is the hometown of radio host Rush Limbaugh. The local fixture — and hero of the conservative base — appeared at the rally as well. Trump on Monday also called in to the radio show hosted by right-wing commentator Mark Levin, underscoring his ability to circumvent the traditional news media as he made his closing pitch to voters.
But it was a set of unscripted interactions between Trump and his allies at Fox that was most striking, turning his final midterms appearance into a display of the White House’s unique alliance with the conservative-leaning news channel. The cocoon of right-wing media rose around Trump as voters prepared to go to the polls to deliver a verdict on the first two years of his presidency.
It is a given that Fox is partial to the GOP, just as its left-leaning counterparts tend to favor the other side. But Trump’s overt hostility to the mainstream media serves to highlight his cozy relationship with Fox, prompting criticism that he sees the news channel as state TV.
Some at the network bristle at this suggestion. Martha MacCallum, who is set to co-anchor the network’s live election coverage Tuesday night alongside fellow anchor Bret Baier, told the Philadelphia Inquirer this week that it was a misconception to see Fox as “state-run television.” Baier told the New Yorker earlier in the year that it “pains” him to hear the network described this way. Fox on Monday joined other networks in saying it would no longer run a racially inflammatory ad released last week by the Trump campaign.
Most vocal in dissenting from the pro-Trump line has been Shepard Smith, who last week took the administration to task for fearmongering in discussing the caravan of Central American migrants heading toward the southern border, telling his viewers: “There is no invasion. No one’s coming to get you. There’s nothing at all to worry about.”
But Monday’s rally was awash with evidence that the president sees some of Fox’s most visible personalities as surrogates in his political crusade. And, perhaps even more notably, the event illustrated their willingness to fulfill that function.
Despite his assurance that he wouldn’t join the president on the stump, Hannity spent the time before he went live posing for selfies with audience members and revving up the crowd. And after a fact-challenged opening monologue touting the president’s accomplishments — the tax measure approved last year was not the “single biggest middle-class tax cut in American history” — Hannity engaged Trump in a 10-minute back-and-forth about the success of his administration and the weakness of his Democratic critics.
Hannity told Trump how popular he was among his supporters.
“I went out there an hour before the show, and the crowd is electric,” he said. “Every hat I signed . . . every hat was soaking wet. There’s a bigger crowd outside than there is inside.”
His only complaint? That the president had missed his opening monologue.
Not so, Trump comforted him.
“No, I saw it on the plane,” he said. “Actually, I saw it on the plane. I never miss your opening monologue. I would never do that.”
At the end of the conversation, billed by Fox as a “powerful interview,” Laura Ingraham, another host and Trump proponent, was standing by for her 10 p.m. slot. “Want to say hi to the president?” Hannity asked her.
She did and was promptly informed by Trump that he was “very proud of her.” Feigning jealousy that Ingraham got “all the compliments,” Hannity turned to Trump and issued compliments of his own, telling the president, “I don’t think anyone has your energy level.”
After the dialogue, Bill Shine, the Fox executive turned White House communications director, gave Hannity a high-five, according to a White House pool report. In 2010, when Fox learned that the tea party was advertising Hannity’s appearance at a fundraising event, the network barred him from attending. The network executive who explained why he had been barred — saying political activists were “charging for access to Sean” — was none other than Shine.
Once on stage, Trump wasted no time trotting out his allies at Fox.
“I have a few people that are right out here. And they’re very special. They’ve done an incredible job for us. They’ve been with us from the beginning,” he said.
“I’m going to start by saying Sean Hannity, come on up — Sean Hannity,” Trump said. Supporters clapped and waved.
They embraced, and Trump gestured for Hannity to take the podium — not a typical position for a television host who interviews the president. The Fox host raised his eyebrows and pointed to the lectern featuring the presidential seal. Trump urged him forward, adjusting the microphone. “I had no idea you were going to invite me up here,” Hannity said, before attacking the media and praising the president for following through on his campaign commitments. “Mr. President, thank you,” he concluded.
Next came Jeanine Pirro, host of Fox’s “Justice With Judge Jeanine” and the author of “Liars, Leakers and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy.” Trump singled her out, he said, because she “treats us very, very well.” He told the audience: “She’s my friend, and she’s your friend — Justice Jeanine.”
Although she has a law degree and has served on the Westchester County Court in New York, Pirro has no experience that would warrant the title “justice,” applied to members of an appeals or supreme court. She took the podium and exhorted audience members to usher their family members and friends to the polls to vote for Republican candidates.