The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sean Hannity’s deeply embarrassing ‘interview’ with Paul Manafort

Hannity actively misinforms his channel’s audience

Talk show host Sean Hannity appears with President Donald Trump at a rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., in 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

Sean Hannity is not a journalist, as he himself has admitted. That he plays one on television, though, affords him the chance to have the best of both worlds in the same manner that his employer, Fox News, enjoys.

He can adopt the trappings of journalism when needed, like pushing back against a request for information from the Jan. 6 committee on the grounds that he’s an esteemed member of the Fourth Estate. But, since his show falls on Fox’s “opinion” side of the ledger — the subtlest of distinctions — he’s also free to simply advocate for Donald Trump and Trump’s allies as desired.

So on Wednesday night, his audience was treated to one of the most garish rehabilitation efforts in recent political memory: an interview of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort that was to softball interviews what Pong is to tennis. Here, Hannity had the first on-camera interview with one of the central figures of the Russia probe since Manafort was pardoned by Trump, and he used it to spread misinformation about that investigation while completely failing to ask Manafort about what actually occurred during the 2016 campaign.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

Again, I do not expect Hannity to interview Manafort in good faith. I am not naive; I recognize Hannity for who and what he is. It’s also possible that Manafort agreed to an interview only if some subjects were off-limits, but I very much doubt he even needed to raise that prospect. You don’t appear on Hannity’s show for an interview as a Trump ally and worry in advance about how harsh the experience will be.

Even with that standard set, though, the “interview” was an embarrassment that could only have made Fox News viewers less well-informed than if they hadn’t watched at all.

Hannity began with a false assertion about the Russia probe itself.

“You really — in many ways, you, Roger Stone, [George] Papadopoulos, General [Michael] Flynn and Carter Page, the president himself,” Hannity said, referring to various targets of the Russia investigation — “all of this stems from a false, phony narrative based on a false dossier and phony FISA warrants.”

Nope. Wrong. Obviously and immediately wrong.

Quickly: Papadopoulos was investigated after telling an Australian diplomat that he had heard that Russia had incriminating emails belonging to Hillary Clinton. He later admitted to lying to investigators about his interactions with a man apparently linked to Russian intelligence. Flynn was investigated after his conversations with Russia’s ambassador were collected by the National Security Agency. He later admitted to lying about those conversations. Stone was convicted by a jury on charges of lying to investigators and attempting to block testimony from another witness; his sentence was commuted by Trump.

The line about the dossier — a reference to reports collected by an investigator named Christopher Steele — really applies only to Carter Page, who served as an adviser to Trump’s campaign. He had been on investigators’ radar for years and traveled to Russia in July 2016, during the campaign. Shortly after he resigned from Trump’s team following public scrutiny of his interactions with Russia, the government obtained a warrant to surveil him based in part on that dossier. This has been retconned into being the genesis of the Russia probe overall, as Hannity suggests here. That’s obvious nonsense but taken as an article of faith on the right.

Of more importance here is that Manafort is perhaps the person least protected by this argument. He had worked on behalf of a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine for years and had been interviewed by the FBI twice even before joining Trump’s team. Once he gained his position with the 2016 campaign, generously working for free, he quickly began trying to figure out how to leverage the gig to repair his relationship with an oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Manafort participated in the well-known meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016 with a Kremlin-linked attorney.

Less well-known, but more substantially, he also handed over internal campaign polling to a longtime aide, Konstantin Kilimnik. A bipartisan Senate report released in 2020 identified Kilimnik as “a Russian intelligence officer.” Sanctions imposed by the Treasury Department last year included a reference to his having “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” This, of course, was during a period when Russia was actively seeking to interfere in the election on Trump’s behalf.

There’s certainly still a lot of fuzziness about all of this. There’s no solid evidence that Russia actually used sophisticated polling to shape its efforts, for example, and it’s not clear that what Manafort handed over would have been useful anyway. But if you’re going to frame an interview with Manafort as being about the Russia probe, it might be useful to recognize and explore that gray area instead of, say, completely ignoring any implication that Manafort might have actually been culpable in something that could certainly be described as “colluding with agents of the Russian government.”

Instead, Hannity used his 12 minutes with Manafort to let Manafort cast his prosecution as unwarranted. No mention was made of the fact that Manafort was tried and convicted on charges stemming from his financial activity prior to joining Trump’s campaign, just that he was being unfairly targeted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s overzealous team. Hannity asked Manafort to weigh in on the dire conditions in prison — a place that, to Hannity’s viewers, Manafort just suddenly appeared in one day for reasons unknown.

Again, I expect no better of Sean Hannity. No better. But it is nonetheless worth identifying this for what it is: an attempt not only to continue to rewrite the history and focus of the Russia investigation but to do so by whitewashing one of the actors most obviously implicated by what was uncovered. And, more than that, by helping that actor sell copies of his upcoming book, a tome that Hannity repeatedly plugged as having jaw-dropping revelations that he couldn’t get into on the show.

All this as lawyers insist to the committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack that Hannity is a serious journalist whose conversations with Trump deserve protection under the First Amendment.