The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maria Bartiromo is the new Sean Hannity

Maria Bartiromo, center, waits for President Donald Trump to speak at the Economic Club of New York on Nov. 12, 2019. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Eight years ago, Maria Bartiromo and Sean Hannity occupied two separate universes in American media. Bartiromo was a respected business anchor on CNBC, covering business news early each morning. Hannity was a Fox News talking head, the guy who used his prime-time opinion show to explain why whatever Republican leaders were doing was good.

When Bartiromo agreed to join Fox in late 2013, she was insistent that she would still offer the same approach to her coverage that she always had.

“I’m not looking to get into political fights or politicize business,” she told the Los Angeles Times at the time. Speaking to the Daily Beast shortly after her Fox gig began, she said something similar: “I’m not changing.”

That did not hold. Over the course of her tenure with Fox Business and Fox News, she changed dramatically, as The Washington Post’s Sarah Ellison documented last year. Bartiromo’s “hard-wired Wall Street sympathies resonated with the new administration’s economic agenda at a time when her new network home was going increasingly all-in for Trump,” Ellison wrote. And then her sympathies went further: praising Trump’s response to the violence in Charlottesville, collapsing into the world of anti-Russia-investigation conspiracy theories and, ultimately, promoting Trump’s false and hollow claims about fraud in the 2020 election.

On Sunday, CNN reported that Bartiromo’s activism on that last point included an effort a year ago to pressure Attorney General William P. Barr to investigate the nonexistent problem.

“She called me up and she was screaming,” Barr told ABC News’s Jonathan Karl, who included the story in his new book, “Betrayal.” She was frustrated, Karl wrote, because the Justice Department “hadn’t done anything to stop the Democrats from stealing the election.”

What’s telling about this assertion was the response. Through a statement from the network, Bartiromo did not dispute the substance of the conversation, just the direction of the yelling: She said it was Barr who was yelling. This, of course, is the absolute least-important part of a story in which an ostensible journalist is calling the sitting attorney general to insist that he launch an investigation centered on the journalist’s delusions about a democratic election. To think that Barr yelling is important is to think that no other part of the preceding sentence is.

Perhaps a more damning aspect of the story is that it’s not surprising. For years, Bartiromo had abdicated the pretense of journalism where Trump was involved. In 2019, she helmed an interview (“interview”) with the then-president that was so obsequious it was remarkable even by Fox News’s standards. It was mostly smiling and nodding as Trump offered his standard patter; she explicitly agreed with him more than a dozen times.

In October 2020, she gave Trump an hour of air time to say whatever he wanted to say, most of which was focused on his efforts to set the table for claiming that the election was stolen. After the election, Bartiromo not only elevated skepticism about the election results, she gave a platform to Trump attorney Sidney Powell, whose claims of stolen votes were so deranged that even Trump eventually distanced himself from her. It was at about this point that Bartiromo reportedly called Barr.

What’s interesting about this evolution is how it occurred as Hannity receded to the background. In 2018, New York magazine reported that Hannity and Trump were in constant communication, a relationship reflected in the Fox News host’s programming. He was quick to elevate skepticism about the Russia probe and eager, as always, to defend whatever it was that the Republican president was doing. But as Ellison and The Post’s Jeremy Barr wrote earlier this year, he recently has found himself in a “funk,” often overshadowed by his colleague Tucker Carlson’s more extreme programming. Hannity was a Trump advocate; Carlson defends the philosophies that powered Trump’s ascent. Post-Trump presidency, the latter offers a lot more grist.

Bartiromo, meanwhile, has risen to the flagship network’s evening programming. With the demotion of Martha McCallum earlier this year, Fox News has offered its 7 p.m. slot to a rotating cast of pundits and personalities, including Bartiromo, Meghan McCain’s husband Ben Domenech and “Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade. It’s not clear who will be anointed to fill the spot permanently, but the gig at least gave Bartiromo a chance to audition.

Meanwhile, she still has her weekend show, “Sunday Morning Futures.” This was the idea that helped bring her to Fox News, a pitch for a Sunday-morning political show that was savvier about the world of business. But it, too, reflects the new Bartiromo, not the old one. Last month, for example, she hosted Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to elevate obvious nonsense about the coronavirus pandemic and to nod along when Johnson said it was “sinister” that the government was recommending against taking an anti-parasite medicine instead of simply getting vaccinated.

Hours before CNN broke the story about her call with Barr, her show was no less enmeshed in the new Republican universe. First, she welcomed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), framing the interview through the idea that “we can add economic crisis to the list of foreign policy crises that this administration has engineered in the last 10 months.” Later, she spoke with Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), asking him about President Biden’s “stunning admission” that he had spoken with his son Hunter before participating in the recent climate conference. She and Jordan riffed on unsubstantiated and debunked claims about the Bidens and China for a while. She asked him why Republicans would vote for the bipartisan infrastructure bill “when there’s not a dime in it for the border wall?”

Ultimately, the discussion landed on how “troubling” it was that the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack would potentially charge former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows with contempt of Congress for skipping a deposition last week.

“Really, really troubling times right now, Congressman,” Bartiromo agreed, when Jordan declared it “as wrong as it gets” that Meadows might face repercussions.

Another guest Bartiromo hosted on Sunday was former White House staffer Kash Patel, who himself was subpoenaed by the House committee and declined to appear for a deposition. Bartiromo didn’t ask him about that, focusing instead on his assessment of the Russia investigation.

If Donald Trump was watching, he was probably pleased.