On Wednesday night, Fox News host Sean Hannity savaged special counsel Robert S. Mueller III for his statement earlier in the day on the findings of his nearly two-year investigation. “Now, today, he officially resigned from the Office of Special Counsel but not before showing the world, of course, what we already know on this program, his partisan hackery true colors, if you will,” said Hannity, in his typical spitfire delivery.
That particular attack from Hannity appears to stem from a specific comment of Mueller’s: Referring to a legal opinion of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, Mueller explained how his team handled findings about Trump’s possible obstruction of justice. “The opinion says that the Constitution requires a process other than the criminal-justice system to formally accuse a sitting president of wrongdoing,” said Mueller. Quite a few people have interpreted that statement as an endorsement of congressional impeachment proceedings.
“You have career bureaucrat, nothing more than a Trump-hating partisan, who is now all but cheering for impeachment based on nothing,” said Hannity of Mueller, a Republican.
Another pointed remark from the special counsel also appeared to irk the Fox News host: “If we had had the confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so. We did not however make a determination as to whether the president did commit a crime,” said Mueller on Wednesday. Riffing and ripping, Hannity decided to assert his all-encompassing expertise and wisdom: “Number one, Mr. Mueller doesn’t know the law. He’s basically full of crap, and the special counsel’s regulations, they are very clear,” said Hannity.
Guest Alan Dershowitz also opined on Mueller’s we-would-have-said-so remark. “That was absolutely inappropriate for him to say,” said the Harvard Law professor.
Thing is, Mueller had already said as much — in his report, which hit the public realm more than a month before his statement. Here’s the relevant passage from Volume II of the report: “If we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment.” As far as the supposed incitement to impeachment, the Mueller report had already cited the OLC opinion.
And yet! When Mueller’s report was released (with redactions) on April 18, Hannity went on air with these words, among many others: “We begin tonight with a Fox News alert. The witch hunt is officially over. The Mueller report is out. And the president of the United States has been totally and completely vindicated,” said Hannity on that night. More: “Tonight, thankfully, for the sake of this country, truth has prevailed. As the president’s attorneys put it, quote: This vindication of the president is an important step forward for the country and a strong reminder that this type of abuse must never be permitted to occur again.”
The “truth” that prevailed in the Mueller report on April 18, of course, is the same “truth” that prevailed in Mueller’s Wednesday appearance. As the special counsel stated, his report is his testimony; if he were forced to testify before Congress, he would not say anything that went beyond his written findings. Which is to say, the quotes that so angered Hannity and his guests on Wednesday have been part of the public record for nearly five weeks.
So what happened? Television happened: Mueller stood before the cameras and summarized his findings. The affair was covered by every media outlet of consequence. It was such an event that the major cable news networks speculated about it for more than an hour before it happened. They couldn’t talk about anything else, even though it hadn’t even happened yet.
This very spectacle — the special counsel, in his first public remarks on the investigation — forced Hannity and many others to reckon with the Mueller team’s actual findings. As opposed to the findings that Hannity had been announcing to his viewers in the intervening weeks:
- On May 2: “The witch hunt is done. Mueller has gone home. No collusion, no obstruction.”
- On May 22: “We now have four separate investigations that have all cleared President Trump of the spurious charges leveled against him and his campaign. No collusion, fact. No obstruction, fact.”
- On May 27: “Now, the truth has been laid bare for all to see. No collusion. No obstruction. No truth to the lies that have been peddled daily.”
Folks who place trust in Hannity — and there are many — might have been confused, accordingly, upon hearing Mueller state, “If we had had the confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime, we would have said so.” So Hannity had to reassure his fans: Mueller doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
Some other precincts of Fox News reported honestly on Mueller’s appearance, including anchor Bret Baier and judicial analyst Andrew Napolitano. As Quinta Jurecic notes in the Atlantic, however, the news value of Wednesday lay not in the information — which has been around for weeks — but rather in the step taken by Mueller to highlight it.
Propagating misinformation, as it turns out, is a complicated business. To properly air the “no collusion” mantra, Hannity has to hype the Mueller probe’s investigative thoroughness. To properly air the “no obstruction” mantra, Hannity must simultaneously aver that Mueller is “basically full of crap.” It’s one of the luxuries of Hannity’s bubbled existence at Fox News that he will never be forced to choose between the two.
A previous version of this post characterized Mueller’s statement as a “news conference.”
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