The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s all-powerful brain can reshape his wealth or national security

President Donald Trump greets talk show host Sean Hannity at a rally in Missouri on Nov. 5, 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

There are three possible reasons that Fox News host Sean Hannity isn’t embarrassed by how sycophantic and useless his on-air conversations with Donald Trump are.

The first possibility is that he’s simply so mired in the false presentation of the world that he’s helped to create that he doesn’t even realize how all of his jumping-off points for questions to the former president are themselves imaginary. Like Trump, Hannity litters his comments with shorthand references to things that others immersed in the same media world understand without explication: bought-and-paid-for dossier, BleachBit, Hunter Biden’s laptop.

Each of those unpacks into its own universe of allegations and fears for Hannity viewers, and he uses them to heighten the conspiratorial flavor of any new topic the way one might compare a disliked boss to Attila the Hun. But, importantly, those shorthands are never reexamined; Hannity’s questions are simply built on top of a foundation of sand.

Then there’s the possibility that Hannity knows that he’s simply serving as an appendage of Trump’s communications team. That, fretting perpetually about viewership numbers, he knows he ought to dance with the feller that brung him. He has accepted that his job is not one in true proximity to journalism but, instead, it’s to help push forward this great, sluggish machine that is the Donald Trump worldview. He weaves those shorthands into his patter in the way that the spokesperson for the sanitation department refers to the trash can in his kitchen as a litter basket.

Someone once described former NBC commentator Chris Matthews’s interviewing style to me as: “Here’s what I think. What do you think of what I think?” As I’ve noted before, Hannity’s style with Trump is a variant of that: “Here’s what you think. What do you think of what you think?” It served him well for the past four years and he sticks with it.

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But then there’s the third option: that Hannity is slowly trying to undercut Trump from the inside. That he is keeping his enemy closer. That he manifests as a lunkish hanger-on so that he can get Trump feeling loose and at ease. And then — without Trump or anyone else noticing — he gently leads the former president to the precipice.

Gets him to say stuff like this, from Hannity’s interview with Trump that aired on Wednesday night:

“If you’re the president of the United States, you can declassify just by saying, ‘it’s declassified.’ Even by thinking about it, because you’re sending it to Mar-a-Lago or to wherever you’re sending it.”

This unique explanation of the presidential declassification power came in response to Hannity’s pressing Trump to explain how it worked. This has come up a lot recently, as Trump and his allies emphasize that the dozens of documents with classification markings found at Mar-a-Lago when the FBI searched it last month had, in fact, been previously declassified. This is irrelevant to the legal questions at issue, mind you, but Trump and his allies understand that hoarding classified material is much more immediately tangible to a layperson than questions about the Presidential Records Act.

So Trump and his team have said they were declassified, citing various putative mechanisms under which that happened, and Hannity asked. And Trump declared that the act of thinking about sending a classified document to a place where it didn’t belong functionally counted as declassification.

For perhaps obvious reasons this is not how it works. There is a process for declassification that needs to be followed simply because it is not the case that the president is the only person using this material. If a president’s thought declassifies a report on CIA torture programs, that’s technically now available for public consumption, according to Trump. But I suspect that the CIA would prefer there be something in writing before they started handing out copies.

Put another way, Trump’s presentation of declassification here is one that is entirely dependent on this particular use case: clearing something that he will have in his possession. There’s no other context in which declassifying-by-mind-control makes sense as a useful governmental function, which is why no one has ever before claimed that this is how it works.

But there’s another interesting parallel here worth elevating. The first softball Hannity tossed to the former president dealt with the announcement earlier in the day that the New York attorney general was suing Trump, three of his adult children and his company for alleged fraudulent business practices. The central allegation is that the Trump Organization, with its executives’ blessing, misrepresented the value of different properties depending on who was requesting the information.

The idea was that property values, like classification status, depended on what Trump needed them to be in the moment. If he wanted a loan, the lawsuit suggests, he might decide to inflate the value of his properties to imply that he had a more robust base of collateral. If he got caught with material marked TOP SECRET, he might announce that he had the power to declassify that document with his mind.

One of the first presentations Trump made to the public as a candidate leveraged this same technique, in fact. When he announced his candidacy for the presidency in 2015, he released a document detailing his net worth. But that document included vague, subjective declarations like that his brand was worth billions of dollars.

This comported with his past representations. In 2011, CNN reported that during a deposition Trump had been asked how he determined his net worth.

“My net worth fluctuates,” he said, “and it goes up and down with the markets and with attitudes and with feelings, even my own feelings, but I try.”

His feelings affect his net worth? Sure, why not.

There may be a reason for Trump’s reliance on his own brain to surmount reality. His father was a close friend of Norman Vincent Peale, whose book “The Power of Positive Thinking” became a bestseller when Trump was young. In 2015, Trump biographer Gwenda Blair outlined how Peale’s rhetoric had seemingly been internalized by Donald Trump. He regularly credited his positive outlook for his success. Mind over matter. Hoping over valuations. Thinking over declassification processes.

True to form, Hannity didn’t press Trump on the obviously weird declassification assertion. Anyone else would have noted that this defied both reason and the presentations of people better versed in declassification. But Hannity next interjected not to question the Power of Positive Thinking About Classification Status but, instead, to help Trump over a rough patch in the former president’s riffs.

The safest bet on the reason Hannity approaches his interviews with Trump the way he does, of course, remains the first one I listed.