HANOI — Stymied by the bumper-to-bumper traffic in Hanoi on Tuesday as the teeming Vietnamese capital absorbed the arrival of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Sean Hannity decided to get to the studio another way.
“After literally 40 minutes not moving, we’re getting nervous about getting on the air,” Hannity told his American audience, “I hopped on a scooter.” The Fox News host and close confidant of President Donald Trump broadcast images of himself, clad in the same navy blazer he was wearing on the air, zipping through Hanoi’s clogged streets on the back of a motorbike. “And by the way, we were riding on the sidewalk there, in case you were interested,” he added.
Hannity is here in Hanoi ahead of an exclusive interview with the president — the first sitdown with Trump at the conclusion of his second summit with Kim on Thursday.
It’s not the first time Fox News’ highest-rated primetime host has been granted this kind of special access. Hannity has chased Trump around the globe, from Singapore to Helsinki to Hanoi, for interviews with the president, offering up softball questions at pivotal moments of the Trump presidency. The result? The first snapshot of history gets filtered through a sympathetic lens.
While thousands of journalists traipse across the world to cover major presidential events, it is rare for opinion hosts to make such trips. But it’s become standard practice in the Trump era, as the president has personally invited friendly figures such as Hannity to accompany him on international forays or asked his press aides to schedule the interviews for him. The president has at times sat for simultaneous interviews with mainstream reporters — in Singapore, he talked with both Hannity and ABC’s George Stephanopoulos — but just as often limited his one-on-one conversations to a friendly interlocutor.
The White House declined to comment on the record.
The news division at Fox sent a full roster of journalists to Hanoi, including chief political anchor Bret Baier, chief national correspondent Ed Henry, anchor Bill Hemmer, chief White House correspondent John Roberts, senior foreign affairs correspondent Greg Palkot and D.C.-based correspondent Kristin Fisher. A network spokesperson confirmed that the news division reached out multiple times to the White House to request an interview in Hanoi with the president — but the White House chose Hannity.
Unlike Fox, other networks sent only their traditional teams. The three broadcast networks — NBC, CBS, and ABC — sent their broadcast anchors, though NBC included Hallie Jackson, Peter Alexander, Kelly O’Donnell and Bill Neely, who also pitch in with coverage on MSNBC. CNN’s big guns — Jake Tapper, Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper — stayed in the U.S., as did MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes.
But Fox News opinion personalities stand out for their boosterish approach to these foreign trips — and their glowing coverage has at times overshadowed the news division’s sober reporting. When senior administration officials visited Israel to preside over the move of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, for instance, Fox host Jeanine Pirro’s commentary attracted headlines of its own.
Trump’s affinity for Fox News, and its pro-Trump hosts in particular, extends to the interviews he grants stateside. According to CBS reporter Mark Knoller, as of February 21 Trump had done 45 interviews with Fox News since taking office. Seven of those went to Hannity, more than the number of sitdowns the president has done with every other network. Second to Fox, Trump has done five interviews each with NBC and CBS.
“It is not unprecedented for the president to have a special relationship with a particularly sympathetic journalist,” said Alex S. Jones, the former director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. “But Hannity is not a journalist. He is a propagandist.”
“I’m a talk show host and an outspoken conservative and honest about my opinions,” Hannity said through a spokesperson. “I have advocated for some of the same policies as the president for 30 years on radio and 23 years on Fox News.”
It’s a testament to the mutually beneficial relationship between the increasingly powerful opinion arm of the Fox News Channel and the White House itself. Since the outset of the administration, the two have operated as close allies, with network commentators trading access for glowing coverage that has reinforced the president’s favorite storylines and fought against or ignored criticism of his administration. Trump has even staffed his team with hires from Fox, creating a tight White House-Fox feedback loop with little precedent in American history.
Heading into Singapore last year, Trump faced widespread criticism for agreeing to meet with the North Korean leader without obtaining any real commitments from Kim. Critics charged the president was turning a pariah into an equal partner on the world stage, while naively allowing North Korea to establish itself as a de facto nuclear power.
Hannity brushed aside those concerns, comparing the summit with Kim to that between Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, Iceland, one that historians consider the beginning of the end of the Cold War.
“You know, in the lead up to this, and this was pretty amazing,” Hannity told Trump at the close of the Singapore summit. “[Kim] had dismantled a nuclear test site, he crossed over the DMZ, three hostages were released, the missiles stopped being fired. You wouldn’t have come here if he was not willing to talk about denuclearization…all of that happened before you walked in and I don’t remember that you said ‘cargo planes of cash’ or gave anything really before the lead up. Why do you think he’s interested in doing this after spending that time with him?”
Hannity was there, too, to provide a soft landing after the president’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki six weeks later, an event slammed by Republicans and Democrats alike after Trump, standing beside the Russian leader, said he didn’t see “any reason” why Moscow would have interfered in the 2016 election despite the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment to the contrary.
”You were very strong at the end of that press conference,” Hannity told Trump.
Many of his colleagues disagreed. “Disgusting,” said Fox host Neil Cavuto. “Almost surreal at points,” said news anchor Bret Baier. “Probably the low point of the presidency,” said Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo.
Hannity expressed no such reservations about Trump’s performance — instead, he took issue with the “unhinged” media voicing displeasure.
Among the narratives Hannity and Trump have advanced in their globetrotting interviews is that of a dishonest media out to get the president.
“Obviously I’m a pretty strong critic of our news media in this country,” Hannity told Trump after the Singapore summit.
“The media is upset you say ‘enemy of the people.’ Aren’t you saying they’re not doing their job?” Hannity asked him in Helsinki.
Various Fox hosts have been critical of the president at times, be it Tucker Carlson blasting him for moving toward Democrats on gun control or Laura Ingraham ripping his handling of immigration. As for Hannity, he has allowed that Trump is “not a perfect person” and gently suggested “maybe he shouldn’t tweet out every thought he has.”
But these critiques have generally come from the president’s right — and more broadly, the line between the White House and the opinion arm of the Fox News Channel became increasingly blurry when longtime Hannity pal Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive and onetime Hannity producer, joined the White House as communications director last July. Shine remains in regular contact with his former colleagues, including Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and the cast of Trump’s favorite morning show, Fox and Friends.
Shine is among several former Fox News executives and personalities who either joined the administration or were considered for jobs. Heather Nauert, a former Fox News correspondent, became the State Department spokeswoman and recently withdrew from consideration to be ambassador to the United Nations. Pirro, a former judge in Westchester, New York, spoke with transition aides in late 2016 about joining the Department of Justice, and the president has raised the prospect of nominating her to the federal bench. Sebastian Gorka, a longtime commentator on various Fox News programs, briefly joined the White House but left the administration in August 2017 amid disputed circumstances.
“We certainly haven’t had a television network with this kind of close relationship, but if you think about 19th-century newspapers, there were lots of newspapers that took it proudly as their mission,” said David Greenberg, a professor of history and journalism and contributor to Politico Magazine, “to put out the message of their party’s president.”
At times, it has been unclear whether Hannity is a part of the White House staff or a member of the press corps. When the president toured the Rio Grande Valley last month, the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker, the designated pool reporter, noted, “Sean Hannity has special access here. He huddled with Bill Shine and Secretary Nielsen and is following along on Trump’s tour, only standing with staff and federal officials as opposed to the press corps.”
The special access has been good business for Fox and its pro-Trump hosts. Hannity’s coverage from Singapore overshadowed the network’s news coverage, which was led by Baier and Chris Wallace. His broadcast on the eve of the summit was the highest-rated program on all of television, beating out “The Bachelorette” and prompting Forbes to write: “Who Won the Trump Kim Summit? Sean Hannity Did.” His exclusive interview after the Trump-Putin did almost as well, bringing in nearly 4 million viewers, a number that crushed the cable news competition.
Pirro, a New Yorker with a decades-long relationship with the president, built a website for her 10-day Israeli sojourn, selling packages complete with tours of “hotspots” of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and various biblical sites. The cost for a “gold” package was $3,295; for platinum, the fee was $3,995. And for an extra $500, guests could “enjoy a private dinner with Judge Jeanine and invited guest Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
Her coverage was as gushing as Hannity’s. She broadcast “man-on-the-street” interviews from Jerusalem on her show, asking Israelis what they thought of the embassy move — all were in favor — and repeating, “so he’s a man of his word?” She also attended the invite-only opening ceremony of the embassy itself, along with Jewish-American luminaries including lawyer Alan Dershowitz and Republican donor Sheldon Adelson. The evening beforehand, she lauded the move as “a truly historic moment in Israel’s history” and also hailed President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the nuclear deal with Iran.
“Trump has reassured the world that his world is worth more than any previous presidents,” she said. “His word is worth more than any treaty and stronger than any U.N. resolution.” The president, Pirro added, “like King Cyrus before him, fulfilled the biblical prophecy of the gods worshipped by Jews, Christians and, yes, Muslims, that Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish state and that the Jewish people finally deserve a righteous, free and sovereign Israel.”
Ruairi Arietta-Kenna and Michael Calderone contributed reporting.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine
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