If you didn’t recognize the people on-screen and there wasn’t identifying text along the bottom of the picture, President Trump’s conversation with Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Thursday night, broadcast live on Fox News, might have been confused with broadcasters hyping a college football game.
The two guys in suits with microphones, taking turns talking to the camera. Behind them, the fans, outfitted in team colors, waving signs and cheering loudly. It wasn't one guy interviewing the other any more than Lee Corso interviews Kirk Herbstreit. It was banter between buddies leveraging verbiage and issues well understood by them and their fans.
As CNN’s Brian Stelter put it on Twitter, it didn’t look like Hannity interviewing a president. They looked like co-hosts.
That’s an interesting formulation in part because it’s often hard to draw the line between Trump as subject of Fox News coverage and Trump as participant in Fox News’s lineup.
The interaction between Hannity and Trump was the second time this month that the beginning of a Trump rally has served as a de facto Fox News interview. Two weeks ago, Trump had a conversation with Fox News host Pete Hegseth — someone who was also rumored to be in consideration for a position in Trump’s Cabinet.
The network has also raised eyebrows over the past few months by directly and unequivocally working Republican politicians into their programming. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi spent three days last month serving as a co-host of the Fox show “The Five,” even while she is still paid by Floridians to serve in an official capacity. The appearance was so unusual that a state ethics commission questioned whether the television time constituted a gift to a public official.
On Sept. 11, the network’s show “Outnumbered,” which generally features a different male guest host every day, invited Michigan senatorial candidate John James to spend an hour on set. He promoted his appearance on the show; the show promoted him and, by extension, his candidacy.
Fox’s relationship with Trump is a more intense version of that same interaction. Not only did Hannity speak with Trump before the rally, but the network aired much of the rally live on its network. It does that consistently. From late April to early July, Fox News aired eight hours of Trump rally coverage, eight hours of Trump riffing on whatever came to mind for Fox News’s audience. Even when Trump isn’t on the air, Fox News’s coverage tends to be more generous than that of the other cable networks.
But he’s on the air frequently. Most of Trump’s interviews since being inaugurated have been with reporters and hosts from the Fox News Network or Fox Business. By mid-July, Trump had done half as many interviews as President Barack Obama did to the same point, according to CBS’s Mark Knoller, and he had done more interviews with Fox than with other major networks combined — several times over.
What do those interviews look like? Here is what Hannity asked Trump on Thursday night — or, to be more accurate, here are the topics Hannity raised for Trump to comment on.
- “What do you make of where the Kavanaugh hearings are now? There’s a new set of demands that’s come out.” Hannity added that Trump has “been very accommodating.”
- “Mr. President, you’re dealing with a lot of good economic news today.” He segued into a report from two frequent Trump defenders disparaging the FBI.
- “The irony in all of us, as I have been covering all of this, when you think about it: Clinton bought and paid for, used funneled money, a dossier, foreign national put it together. They never verified, they never corroborated and it was the bulk of information.” (Here’s why that’s different than the meeting at Trump Tower.)
- “Your economic record, I talked about it earlier in the show tonight. Record low unemployment [in] 14 states, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, women, youth unemployment. We have great news on the economy, better news on Kim Jong Un. He’s not firing rockets over Japan.”
Then the piece de resistance:
- “I’ll ask one last question because there’s a lot of people in this arena waiting for you, as you can see. Forty-seven days from now is the midterm elections. Forty-seven days. We know what the agenda of the Democrats are. They want to go after you. They want endless investigations. They want to keep Obamacare. They want to eliminate ICE. They want open borders. They want the crumbs back, your tax cuts. And my question is, the question every American ought to ask is, are we better off than we were two years ago. What do you say to those people who love you but maybe aren’t so hot on their Republican House or Senate member?”
“What do you say to those people who love you but maybe aren’t so hot on their Republican House or Senate member?”
Mind you, Trump and Hannity are known to be close. Hannity endorsed Trump before the election and has advocated for him explicitly since. The two are reported to speak together by phone regularly, with the Fox News host offering Trump advice. That was made obvious this week when Trump admitted in an interview with the Hill that he decided to declassify documents related to the Russia investigation in response to requests from Hannity and others. (Hannity, of course, lacks the clearance required to know what’s in the declassified documents.)
(Hannity asked Trump about that on Thursday, too. “You have now said declassify and redact it,” he asked. “How soon will that be coming?”)
At the end of his exchange with the president in Las Vegas, Hannity explained to Trump and viewers what to expect from Fox News: “We are always fair and balanced, not the destroy-Trump media."
That was obvious from the moment Trump walked out to join him in his broadcast.
“There he is, the commander in chief. And here comes the music,” Hannity said as Trump emerged for their conversation. “Obviously a lot of — the crowd in this arena is huge as we come to you from the Vegas convention center.”
Hannity stood next to Trump and basked in the applause. Then he offered Trump a bit of stage direction.
Pointing to the cameras at the back of the room, Hannity told Trump, “Wave to the fake news media!”