On the Friday before Labor Day in 2016, the FBI released a set of documents related to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Included among them were a number of new details about the bureau’s investigation including, tantalizingly, an interview with a Clinton staffer who reported having destroyed with a hammer at least two mobile devices used by the former secretary of state.
That story soon became a regular part of Sean Hannity’s late-campaign patter on his Fox News show. He mentioned it in his first show back after the holiday weekend — and then on six more occasions between then and Election Day. On Halloween, he invited former House speaker Newt Gingrich on the program and melodramatically recounted what the report had indicated.
For Hannity and many of his guests (and for the candidate he supported), destroying those devices was clearly indicative of guilt on her part. Why else would you need to smash an electronic device to bits, unless you were desperate to keep the feds from discovering what information the devices contained?
The simple answer, of course, was that Clinton’s devices had at some point stored information related to her work at the State Department and the destruction of those retired devices helped prevent anyone from potentially retrieving their contents, including foreign agents. At the time, Wired even wrote an article addressing the issue of security that argued that smashing the devices with a hammer wasn’t secure enough.
That context wasn’t part of Hannity’s pre-election rhetoric. Nor was it generally part of the dozens of times after the election that he raised the subject. Why bring it up once the election was over? Usually to juxtapose what the FBI was investigating with what he thought the bureau should be investigating: Hillary Clinton.
There were two big bursts of mentions on Hannity’s show after Trump’s inauguration.
The first came last summer, when the revelation that Donald Trump Jr. had coordinated a meeting at Trump Tower with a Kremlin-linked lawyer overlapped with the initial raid on Paul Manafort’s house.
“Instead of cooperating like Paul Manafort has been doing, why didn’t he just delete 33,000 emails?” Hannity sarcastically asked, referring to Clinton’s deletion of non-work-related emails prior to the FBI investigation. “Why didn’t he have someone smash his devices with a hammer? … After all, that worked for Hillary Clinton. She did that.”
The second burst came earlier this year, when Hannity joined Trump’s focus on undercutting the FBI investigation’s motivations and focus. In late January, he vented about missing text messages between two FBI employees involved in the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, which he claimed was a sign of a coverup.
“Every single solitary time the Obama administration and other officials are backed into a corner and in serious legal trouble, all of a sudden, all of the evidence magically disappears. This is their modus operandi,” he said. “Hillary Clinton, 33,000 subpoenaed emails deleted. Just to make extra, extra sure, acid washed, BleachBit the whole entire hard drive to make sure the evidence is completely destroyed. And just in case it made it to one of her BlackBerrys or mobile devices, well, she sends an aide out with a hammer. Boom! Let’s smash that sucker.”
The missing text messages were later recovered.
Much of Hannity’s presentation in his commentary above is misleading or incorrect. But the broader point remains: Taking steps to protect information from advanced retrieval efforts looks an awful lot like taking unusual steps to avoid scrutiny, which Hannity used to his rhetorical advantage.
On Wednesday night, his discussion of destroying electronic devices shifted a bit.
That afternoon, CNBC reported a new aspect to Mueller’s investigation. In addition to questioning potential witnesses in his investigation, Mueller and his team have also been requesting access to their phones, allowing investigators to peruse messages sent over systems that would otherwise be hard to acquire. Some programs, like Apple’s iMessage, WhatsApp and Signal, use a form of encryption that makes it very difficult to read what was said without access to either the sender’s or recipient’s phone.
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort used WhatsApp as part of his alleged effort to persuade a potential Mueller witness to offer untrue testimony. Mueller’s team uncovered it either because the messages were backed up to Manafort’s online Apple storage account or because that third party turned over his conversations to Mueller. If neither that witness nor Manafort had complied with Mueller (and had Manafort turned off backups of his WhatsApp messages), the conversation would have been difficult for Manafort to uncover.
On his show Wednesday night, Hannity offered new advice to those targeted by Mueller’s probe.
“They are demanding that witnesses turn in their phones, so Team Mueller … get to review all of their electronic communications. He wants the phones turned over, even texts that are on what are called ‘encrypted apps’ like WhatsApp or Signal, or one of these things,” he said. “Now maybe Mueller’s witnesses — I don’t know! If I advised them to follow Hillary Clinton’s lead, delete all your emails and then acid-wash the emails and the hard drives on the phones, then take your phones and bash them with a hammer to little itsy-bitsy pieces, use BleachBit, remove the SIM cards, and then take the pieces and hand it over to Robert Mueller and say: ‘Hillary Rodham Clinton, this is equal justice under the law.’ ”
He was kidding, he later insisted — while repeating the same advice.
“My advice to them — not really! Kidding! Bad advice! — would be, follow Hillary’s lead,” he said. “Delete ’em, acid-wash ’em, bust ’em up, take out the SIM cards and say, here, little pieces, here Mr. Mueller, I’m following Hillary Clinton’s lead.”
Then he raised it again, talking to attorney Joe diGenova.
“As I said, now that Robert Mueller wants everybody’s phones in case they used one of these applications, I guess, WhatsApp or whatever you call this stuff,” he said. What if those witnesses deleted their emails and smashed their phones? “How would that work out for all of those people Robert Mueller requested phones from?” he asked.
“If they had done any of those steps that you just identified, they would have obstructed justice and would be subject to prosecution,” diGenova replied. “Of course, that wasn’t the way Hillary Clinton was treated because James Comey conducted a fraudulent investigation.”
The first part of diGenova’s response is true: Willfully trying to hide information from Mueller’s team would almost certainly end poorly for you. Hannity’s advice, however jokingly offered, is indeed bad advice. The second part of diGenova’s response is based on the same assumption that powered Hannity for all of those months: Clinton must have been trying to hide something, not simply trying to protect information that might remain on retired devices.
This seems like a fairly roundabout way in which to criticize the FBI. If there were devices with encrypted messages and if those were destroyed by Mueller witnesses, that would be like how Clinton destroyed her devices, which was part of a flawed investigation because the FBI is biased. It depends on the assumption that Clinton’s device destruction was indeed malevolent. (On CNN at about the same time, former Fox News contributor Ralph Peters was telling Anderson Cooper that he “suspect[s] Hannity really believes” his rhetoric about the “deep state” and the Department of Justice.) That said, he does tend to bring it up a lot.
At least one conservative site has defended Hannity’s comments as an obvious joke. Hannity tempered his comments about destroying devices with the requisite insistences that he didn’t really mean it.
His program, we will note, is also watched faithfully by President Trump.