The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hannity apparently asked what to say on Election Day. Then he said it.

President Donald Trump listens Fox News's Sean Hannity during a rally on Nov. 5, 2018, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. (Carolyn Kaster/AP)
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Among the text messages sent to and from former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows that CNN published Monday were some that appear to document an exchange between Meadows and Fox News host Sean Hannity on the day of the 2020 election.

Reporting during Donald Trump’s presidency indicated that Hannity was a frequent — if not incessant — interlocutor for Trump, someone whom Trump called nearly every night to strategize, opine and complain. Hannity had endorsed Trump before the 2016 election, an odd act for a member of the media but one that simply formalized Hannity’s on-air rhetoric. (When Hannity appeared onstage at a Trump rally in 2018, Fox News released a statement of mild condemnation.) Hannity was a sounding board for Trump personally, and Hannity bolstered the administration’s rhetoric on his television and radio programs.

In that context, the exchange between Hannity and Meadows was not surprising, but simply remarkable — particularly given what Hannity was talking about on his radio show that day.

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The Election Day exchange obtained by CNN begins with two messages from Hannity asking Meadows, elevated to the White House from serving as a congressional representative from North Carolina, whether Meadows’s home state would fall in line for the incumbent. Coming into Election Day, polls showed Joe Biden with a narrow lead in the state, though Trump would go on to win there.

“Hey,” the chain of texts that appear to be from Hannity begins. “NC gonna be ok?”

Meadows cut to the chase.

“Stress every vote matters. Get out and vote,” he replied. “On radio[.]”

Hannity replies with a distinctly unjournalistic acquiescence: “Yes sir[.] On it. Any place in particular we need a push[?]”

“Pennsylvania. NC AZ,” Meadows writes back, then following up with “Nevada[.]”

“Got it,” Hannity responded. “Everywhere[.]”

It’s not clear from what CNN released publicly when this exchange occurred, but that Meadows suggested that Hannity make a certain pitch on his radio show suggests that it was before that show began — or, at least, before it ended.

It is very much worth noting that these sorts of questions from high-level supporters of campaigns are a near-constant on Election Day. Big donors and big endorsers, particularly those with little familiarity with the actual mechanics of running a campaign, will pester senior staff with questions about the state of play or what the exit polling shows — information that campaign staff often doesn’t have or isn’t going to share.

It is also worth noting that what Meadows offered in response is exactly the sort of pablum that is often offered in response. Uh, tell people to vote? We’re seeing a need in, uh, let’s see, Pennsylvania? There are few Election Day lines more rote than “Every vote matters,” except, perhaps, “If you’re in line to vote, stay in line.” So that Meadows gave that advice to Hannity isn’t a shock.

And then there’s Hannity (or, again, the person CNN believes to be Hannity, a belief certainly reinforced by Meadows mentioning his radio show) offering a curt “Yes, sir. On it.”

Curious whether Hannity actually took Meadows’s advice — or, if you will, marching orders — I went back and listened to Hannity’s Nov. 3, 2020, show. And, sure enough!

“I am acting as though and knowing that every single, solitary vote matters,” Hannity said near the top of the show. He added that he was sharing insights after having “been on the phone all day with people all over the country.”

A bit later: “Every single vote in every one of these states that I have just mentioned absolutely, positively matters.”

And later still: “If you’re going to be voting, you know, please, if you’re online, please don’t say, oh, this is going to take too long. Your vote is necessary. Every vote matters.”

Again, generic commentary! But also what one person he was “on the phone” with — Trump’s chief of staff — encouraged him to mention.

Then there were those states that Meadows suggested Hannity focus on, starting with Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Arizona. After running his show through software that transcribed its contents, I searched for the frequency of mentions of each state in Hannity’s segments.

The three states mentioned most often? Pennsylvania (mentioned 58 times), Arizona (32) and North Carolina (32). Florida and Michigan followed, with 26 mentions each — despite Florida polling much closer than Pennsylvania.

Hannity mentioned Nevada much less often, certainly, perhaps in part because polling showed an even wider advantage for Biden there. Still, at times, Hannity strung together the discussion in ways that mirrored his apparent interaction with Meadows.

“Very important that the people in North Carolina,” he said, “that you get out, get in line, wait, vote and do your part. And the same, therefore, goes for Iowa. The same goes for Arizona. The same goes for Nevada.” Then he went on to states that were “more difficult.”

I reached out to CNN for clarification on when the interaction between Meadows and Hannity occurred, information that the network couldn’t provide at this point. All of this is circumstantial, of course, rooted in mentions of states that were generally seen as contested and of phrases that are not uncommon to hear on Election Day.

But that shouldn’t detract from the fact that Sean Hannity said the things on his radio show that his allies in the White House wanted sympathetic radio hosts to say. Or, of course, that Sean Hannity appears to have reached out to the White House to say the things that Trump’s team thought were most useful.

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