There’s a simple reason that President Trump is happy to sit down for a televised interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity. Hannity is the embodiment of everything that Donald Trump says the rest of the media is: biased, sloppy and eager to embrace untrue stories. It’s just that Hannity’s on Trump’s team — explicitly and enthusiastically — so Trump sees Hannity’s journalistic failures instead as examples of how it should be done.
The result is cognitively dissonant tweets like these, back-to-back, which to Trump (and Hannity) don’t seem dissonant at all.
Trump sits down with Hannity because it allows him to say entirely egregious things — deliberate misstatements, long debunked falsehoods and incoherent arguments — with impunity. The most recent iteration of Hannity interviewing Trump aired on Wednesday night, and featured multiple examples of all three of the patterns above. Hannity, who both endorsed and advised Trump during the campaign, didn’t hold Trump to account journalistically (in part because he’s deliberate about insisting that he’s not a journalist). Instead, it was like that scene in the movie “Ghost,” with Hannity helping to shape the lumps of clay that Trump was offering to the audience into small objects that his audience would recognize and appreciate.
The interview was conducted in Pennsylvania, where Trump had traveled to pitch his tax plan. So Hannity opened with a question about the economy, and by “question,” we mean that he repeated almost verbatim a Trump tweet about the stock market and then let Trump respond to it.
This was Trump’s response.
The country — we took it over and owed over 20 trillion. As you know the last eight years, they borrowed more than it did in the whole history of our country. So they borrowed more than $10 trillion, right? And yet, we picked up 5.2 trillion just in the stock market.
Possibly picked up the whole thing in terms of the first nine months, in terms of value. So you could say, in one sense, we’re really increasing values. And maybe in a sense we’re reducing debt. But we’re very honored by it. And we’re very, very happy with what’s happening on Wall Street.
Obviously, growth in the stock market has no direct relationship to a decline in the national debt. One is an increase in value for shareholders, the other is money owed by the government. Economic growth, as Trump has pointed out in the past, can help pay down the debt indirectly by increasing the amount of revenue the government earns — but that’s not what Trump’s saying. He’s saying: President Barack Obama increased debt by $10 trillion and we picked up $5 trillion on the market and that, therefore, “maybe in a sense we’re reducing debt.”
Hannity’s response? He changed the subject, apparently considering that question (such as it was) answered.
What’s remarkable is that this is a disservice to Trump. An actual journalist might have pressed the president on the question: Are you saying that the market increase is related to the debt? How? That would have prompted clarity from Trump that would have almost certainly made his comments seem less odd. But Hannity, uninterested in pressing Trump at all, let it be.
The rest of the interview continued in this pattern. Hannity would raise a subject about which Trump could say something flattering to his administration and Trump would say that flattering thing, often relying on debunked material to do so.
Here are questions Hannity asked about Trump’s tax plan.
“There’s no two accountants that can give you the same liability to the government if you give them the same information. That’s how complicated the tax code is. You want to drop seven brackets to three?”
“You said the corporate rate, which is so important, you said 20 percent is your max.
“The top 10 percent pays 70 percent of the tax bill. The bottom 50 percent pay 2 of the total income tax rate.”
“There are multinational corporations that have parked trillions of dollars in countries that offer them better tax relief. You’re trying to incentive those trillions to come back here with a lower repatriation rate. How low will that be? And how much do you think you can bring back into the United States?”
“If you live in a state like New York, or Illinois, and New Jersey, or California you won’t be able to deduct your local or state income tax. In other words, if you elect politicians that want to raise taxes, you’re going to pay the penalty. So that’s not really true that this is a tax cut for the wealthy, as they’re portraying it. What is your answer to that?”
You get the gist. Hannity didn’t just let Trump preach to the Fox News choir, he also built the church, wrote the liturgy and held the megaphone to Trump’s lips. No questions pressing Trump on estimates that show increases for some middle-income families. No question about how repatriating corporate profits would actually help the economy. Just picking up the softball and putting it back on the tee.
And this was just the section on the economy. The interview amounted to a Trump rally speech with Hannity serving the role of the teleprompter from which the president could start to riff. Trump talked about helping nonwhite Americans through his typical lens of crime in the inner cities (including repeating a debunked story about meeting a cop in Chicago). He talked about how Russian meddling in the 2016 election was an excuse the Democrats ginned up after Hillary Clinton lost (despite the government alerting states about possible meddling last October). He talked about how awful the protests in the NFL were, his current hobbyhorse.
Trump talked about how bad the Iran deal was, after Hannity raised it.
HANNITY: Bill Clinton, when he made the deal with Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, he actually said that this is a good deal for the American people. It was not. It seems the same mistake was made with President Obama and the Iranian deal. There’s reports you will decertify this — you can also pull out of it. [Former U.N. ambassador and Fox News contributor] John Bolton’s suggesting you just pull out completely. Why decertify, and not just scrap it?
TRUMP: Well, you can do both, to be honest with you.
HANNITY: Or do both?
This was Hannity actually pressing on something: Why not dump this thing you keep saying you hate? It’s a tricky issue that’s flustering Trump, as The Washington Post reported this week.
Trump responds, I could do both those things. At which point Hannity tries to slip that in as one of the original options in his question.
Again, this is all a disservice to the president. He hates to be challenged, clearly, and finds critical coverage frustrating. But there’s a reason that critical coverage is protected by the First Amendment (also to Trump’s apparent frustration): It leads to improvement. It leads to better answers from the president, it expands the way in which he understands issues and it forces him to be more clear on what he plans to do and how he wants to do it. That’s to his benefit, as well as the country’s.
Instead we get this.