Sean Hannity from Fox News looks on as U.S. President Donald Trump holds a news conference after his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the JW Marriott hotel in Hanoi, Vietnam, February 28, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis (Leah Millis/Reuters)
Media critic

Sean Hannity is a study in certainty. The mainstream media is corrupt. President Trump is a patriot and a fabulous president who has followed through on his campaign promises, despite a deep state dead set on his undoing. Democrats are awful. Absolutism, meet your designated television-news emissary.

A touch of hesitancy, though, crept into the unequivocal voice of Hannity on his Fox News program Wednesday night. It happened during an “interview” — actually the verbal equivalent of native advertising — with Trump, who’s fresh off the news that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III didn’t establish conspiracy between his presidential campaign and Russia. The two discussed the usual issues, including the media, supportive Fox News hosts, Trump’s greatness and so on.

As the wide-ranging discussion progressed, Hannity wanted to hear the president’s view on the Mueller team, a group that he accused of conducting a “witch hunt” at least 183 times on Twitter alone. “Hannity” frequently repeated the slam on his program. So he asked the president:

Let me ask you now, I was very critical of the team that Robert Mueller put together. You mentioned Andrew Weissmann — I’ve gone through his record — was at Hillary Clinton’s victory party. Only Democratic donors, no Republicans at all, no Republican donors, and also Jeannie Rhee who worked for the Clinton Foundation as a lawyer, was appointed. How do you feel about Mueller today? And were you surprised at all, considering the team that he picked in this particular case? It seemed pretty partisan Democrat. And I thought it was extraordinarily unfair to pick that biased a team.

So there’s the transcript. Now see the video:

It’s a watershed cable news moment, considering that Hannity is on videotape appearing to think.

Trump’s initial response was this: “Yeah, it didn’t seem to be biased. It was biased.”

At that point, Hannity could have jumped in and explored the very real issue that he had broached. But nah — he lapsed back into his role as a presidential workout coach: “That’s a good point,” he responded to the president. Then Trump talked a bit more about the Mueller team, his profound innocence and why all these investigators didn’t “look at all of these acts on the other side?”

“Hannity” was back on track.

As a matter of background, Hannity was understating things when he said he was “very critical” of the Mueller team. As the fossil record reflects, Hannity declared them unfit to fulfill their duties. On Dec. 5, 2017, just a half-year after Mueller was appointed, Hannity riffed on his show, “Tonight right here we have new and more smoking-gun evidence that Mueller’s handpicked minions or bunch of Trump-hating, Hillary-loving partisan hacks … are carrying out what I described as a witch hunt,” he said.

Upon the first anniversary of Mueller’s appointment, Hannity said, “Now, the special counsel has been so abusive, so corrupt, they are so conflicted that the president and his legal team they’re now rightly going on offense to combat the illicit deep state scheme.”

This was the line on “Hannity” for almost two years.

And so Hannity found himself in a pickle this week, after William P. Barr’s summary delivered the good news about Mueller’s findings about collusion. How could this group of biased hacks reach this righteous conclusion? If they were such partisan “minions” and were conflicted by their own allegiances, how in the world could they have produced a report that, to judge from the Barr summary, did not “establish” coordination and conspiracy?

Instead of belaboring those points, Hannity chose celebration. “We, on this program, have been right all along because, unlike the mainstream media, we have been telling the truth with evidence to back it up,” said the host Monday night.

In his exchange with Trump, though, he cracked the door for introspection. Had he opened it, he might have examined the difference between bias and opinion. As people often note through the use of a crude cliche, everyone has opinions. Just check out Facebook or Twitter. Bias is another question. As Michael Kinsley wrote for Slate magazine in 2000, bias is a different beast — “a failure to suppress your opinions.” In slamming Mueller’s team, Hannity was furthering the noxious “fallacy that having an opinion is the same as having a bias,” as Kinsley put it.

The context in which Kinsley discussed opinions and bias was journalism, a profession in which the topic commonly arises. But it applies to other professions where people judge the actions of politicians, such as prosecutors working a charged case in Washington. That Hannity has no appreciation for the central component of their professionalism spilled out of his talk with Trump on Wednesday night. To repeat the end of Hannity’s question to the president: “Were you surprised at all, considering the team that he picked in this particular case? It seemed pretty partisan Democrat. And I thought it was extraordinarily unfair to pick that biased a team.”

With elisions such as that one, Hannity not only slimed Mueller’s team; he also slimed the very idea that people with political leanings — everyone, that is — could capably set them aside and participate in an investigation of a sitting president. As it turns out, they could.

“In the end,” said Hannity on his show, “we now know the truth.” Right — thanks to the people and institutions that Hannity slandered and weakened with his nightly rubbish.

Read more:

Erik Wemple: Did Mueller really find ‘no evidence’ of Trump-Russia collusion?

Randall D. Eliason: William Barr has some explaining to do

E.J. Dionne Jr.: Six takeaways from Barr’s letter about Mueller’s probe

Jennifer Rubin: What Barr’s letter about the Mueller report says and doesn’t say

George Conway: Trump is guilty — of being unfit for office