Republican lawmakers denounced him. Newt Gingrich demanded a do-over. And the hosts of “Fox & Friends,“ President Donald Trump’s favorite morning television show, gave him a verbal slap on the wrist for his performance in a press conference with Russian president Vladimir Putin.
The mass desertion by some of the president’s stalwart allies made his remaining defenders – Sean Hannity and a handful of right-wing media personalities – all the more conspicuous in the wake of Trump’s Helsinki appearance by virtue of being virtually alone.
Leading them all was Hannity, who has shadowed Trump across the globe for high-stakes international summits to provide him with a friendly interview platform moments after their conclusion. He was in Singapore last month to interview the president after his meeting with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, and he was in Helsinki on Monday to shield him from bipartisan attacks that he had disgraced the U.S. by refusing stand up to Putin.
“You were very strong at the end of that press conference,” Hannity told Trump, as he conducted the first interview following the afternoon press conference. Moments earlier, the president had told reporters he accepted Putin’s denials about meddling in the 2016 election even though his Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, said otherwise.
Though some right-wing radio hosts offered their own defenses of the president, the Hannity-Trump interview stood out as a singular safe space for the president on cable news, underscoring the significance of Hannity’s platform for the maintenance of the Trump brand. The relationship is mutually beneficial: Monday night’s interview drew in approximately four million viewers, squashing the cable news competition and, in turn, providing the president with a megaphone that broadcasts directly to his political base.
Friends of Hannity say he is no longer driven primarily by money — Forbes estimated that he makes $36 million annually — but by his belief, shared with associates, that the country is at a tipping point. He and the president have forged a friendship that some have likened to a wacky version of the relationship between the late New York Times reporter Scotty Reston and President John F. Kennedy, who pressed Reston publicly to make the case for the policies he wanted to enact.
Like Trump and Hannity, who have been spotted together numerous times at the president’s Mar-a-Lago resort, Reston and Kennedy spent time together at the Kennedy compound in Hyannis Port, Mass. Reston recounts on his memoir, Deadline, Kennedy asking him make a case in the Times for the U.S. to respond militarily if the Soviets tried to block American access to Berlin. The president himself ultimately cleared the language used a Reston piece that made the argument.
Hannity’s coziness with the president, as well as that of other Fox News hosts, has at times discomfited the executives trying to steer the network in the post-Roger Ailes era. The channel, now led by CEO Suzanne Scott, Fox News executives have at times pushed its hosts to distance themselves from the president, according to people familiar with their deliberations. On at least one occasion, executives asked a group of Fox personalities who had been invited to dine at the White House to decline the invitation, hoping to fend off the appearance that the network has inched too close to the White House.
“All it is is fear and nervousness about the whole situation,” said a former network producer of the proximity of so many of the network’s stars to the White House, including a romantic relationship between Fox host Kimberly Guilfoyle and the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. A spokeswoman for Fox News declined to comment on the record for this article.
A person close to Hannity said that executives have not asked him to declined the president’s invitations, and that he has “a strong working relationship with Rupert [Murdoch], Lachlan [Murdoch] and Suzanne Scott. Rupert in particular loves news and a strong dynamic editorial division.” Unnamed sources, the sources continued, “obviously work in the much lower rated news division at Fox, and are just jealous of the attention and ratings of the opinion hosts on the network.”
Hannity has criss-crossed the globe conducting the ratings-busting interviews in part at the encouragement of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, according to a person familiar with the situation. In exile, Bannon has huddled with Trump defenders like Hannity who still enjoy a direct line to the president, strategizing with them about how to amplify the president’s message. He rallied European populists in London ahead of the president’s visit to the U.K. last week and emerged on Tuesday to defend Trump’s press conference performance. Bannon told POLITICO on Tuesday that Trump was playing three-dimensional chess, pitting Russia against China in “brilliant” strategy.
Talk radio hosts Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh also defended the president, arguing that it was President Barack Obama on whose watch Putin’s mischief occurred but Trump who was being held to account for it. But it was Hannity who offered unmitigated support, praising the president for traveling widely across the globe at “the speed of Trump.”
Hannity’s defense of Trump in the wake of the Helsinki episode stood in stark contrast with the critical remarks made by other Republicans typically loyal to the president. “President Trump must clarify his statements in Helsinki on our intelligence system and Putin. It is the most serious mistake of his presidency and must be corrected — immediately,” said Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker who served as a surrogate for Trump on the campaign trail.
Even Trump’s allies on Fox & Friends, whose hosts and guests have garnered praise from the president on numerous occasions, were discomfited by the interview. “I will say this to the president, when Newt Gingrich, when General Jack Keane, when Matt Schlapp say, ‘The president fell short and made our intelligence apparatus look bad,’ I think it’s time to pay attention and it’s easily correctible from the president’s perspective,” Fox & Friends host Brian Kilmeade said.
Trump appears to have been listening. A senior administration official said the president was far more impacted by external critics, including those on Fox, than by any of his advisers, who were roundly disappointed by his performance. On Tuesday afternoon, he had done an about-face, telling reporters ahead of a meeting with Republican lawmakers that he accepted the findings of the intelligence community that Russia had, in fact, meddled in the 2016 election.