WASHINGTON — Sean Hannity has never been shy about using his highly rated Fox News show to express his disdain for former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and the president’s efforts to obstruct the inquiry.
But hundreds of pages of documents released to BuzzFeed News reveal the depths of the conservative firebrand’s relationship with key members of President Donald Trump’s orbit as they faced a vast criminal investigation conducted by Mueller’s team over two years. The documents, turned over by the Justice Department and FBI in response to a BuzzFeed News Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, also raise ethical questions about Hannity’s role as a trusted adviser to the president’s circle at the height of Mueller’s inquiry — something the television host failed to disclose to his millions of viewers.
In Mueller’s published report, Hannity is mentioned just a handful of times, often in relation to comments guests made on his show. But in the documents — interview summaries with key witnesses that informed the report's narrative, known as 302s — Hannity is mentioned more than a dozen times and emerges as a central point of contact between the president’s allies who were under investigation and Trump himself. BuzzFeed News will receive thousands more pages of interview summaries with other witnesses in the months ahead.
In one instance, former campaign chair Paul Manafort describes Hannity as “a close personal friend” who acted as a “back channel” to the president. In another, Hannity counsels Michael Cohen, Trump’s former longtime personal attorney, after he received an inquiry from Congress.
At the same time, Hannity used his nightly Fox News program to question the integrity of the special counsel’s investigation, calling Mueller a “disgrace to the American justice system.” At one point, the host even “advised” witnesses to "bash" their phones "into itsy-bitsy pieces." (Hannity would later clarify that he was being facetious.)
“It’s alarming,” Kelly McBride, senior vice president of the Poynter Institute and an expert in journalistic ethics, said of Hannity’s appearances in the interview summaries. “It’s evidence that Hannity is as much a part of the president’s inner circle as he is Fox’s inner circle, and so you wonder where his loyalties are.”
A lawyer for Manafort did not respond to requests for comment. The White House declined to comment. Fox News declined to answer a series of questions BuzzFeed News sent the network about Hannity’s appearance in the documents. Instead, through a spokesperson, Hannity said, “Special Counsel Robert Mueller has already called into question the reporting of BuzzFeed [News]. I stand by my incredible investigative team and our great sources and reporting.”
As Hannity and Trump’s relationship flourished during the 2016 campaign, the Fox News personality met often with other members of the then-candidate’s entourage, according to one witness interviewed by Mueller’s team. “Trump and Manafort talked to Sean Hannity in their offices often,” Rick Gates, Manafort’s former deputy, told the FBI. Trump, in this case, appears to be the president’s eldest son, Donald Jr., per handwritten notes attached to the interview summary.
The next year, Hannity’s proximity to the president was on full display, according to other witnesses interviewed by Mueller’s team. When Cohen received a letter from the House of Representatives asking him to testify, he turned to Hannity, who suggested a lawyer, Cohen said. “Hannity recommended [Jay] Sekulow and gave his name and phone number to Cohen,” a November 2018 interview summary states, adding that Sekulow ended up representing the president.
Later that summer, Hannity would also advise Manafort after the FBI raided his home, telling him to “stay strong” and offering to “strategize” with him, according to text messages unsealed by a federal judge last year.
But according to the FBI interview summaries, Manafort understood the Fox News host to be passing along messages from the president — whom Mueller accused of trying to “influence” Manafort after he was charged.
“Manafort knew Hannity was speaking to Trump around then because Hannity would tell Manafort to hang in there, that he had been talking to Trump, that Trump had his back, and things like that,” reads a summary of an October 2018 interview with Manafort. “Manafort understood his conversations with Hannity to be a message from Trump.”
That detail is absent from Mueller’s final report, which focuses on Trump’s efforts to “encourage Manafort to not cooperate with the government” after he was indicted in October 2017. Manafort did eventually take a plea deal, only to violate it.
The timing of the conversations between Manafort and Hannity is also crucial. In the weeks after the FBI searched Manafort’s home, Trump appeared to distance himself from his former campaign chair, saying he hadn’t spoken to Manafort “in a long time.” Manafort told investigators he didn’t remember exactly when his conversations with Hannity occurred, but that the “frequency was dependent on what was going on at the time; sometimes they spoke twice a week, some weeks not at all.”
That summer, Hannity also spoke to several people within Trump’s sphere about the now-infamous Trump Tower meeting, where senior campaign officials were offered incriminating information on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump.” Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff at the time, told Mueller he learned about the meeting from Hannity, and Manafort told investigators that he discussed the meeting after news of it broke in July. “Manafort thought he probably just complained about it. They did not talk about strategy, just the facts,” his interview summary says. That month, Donald Trump Jr. would appear on Hannity’s show to give his first sit-down interview about the meeting.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Trump team would use Hannity’s program for messaging purposes. The interview summaries show Cohen describing how, in 2015, he used Hannity’s radio show to tease a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after former president Barack Obama refused to sit down with Putin at the United Nations General Assembly. Cohen and Trump agreed “it would be funny for the two men to meet at Trump Tower and have a burger,” Cohen told investigators.
After Cohen spoke to Hannity, “Trump asked a handful of times for updates,” the summary states. Cohen then tried to call the Kremlin — after using Google to find a phone number — to set up the meeting. In another interview, Cohen told investigators that when he prepared to testify to Congress in 2017, “there was a specific conversation about keeping TRUMP out of the UNGA narrative” because he had discussed it on Hannity’s show. Cohen would later plead guilty to lying to Congress about other elements of the president’s relationship with Russia.
McBride, who serves as chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership, a journalistic ethics group launched by the Poynter Institute, is baffled by Fox News’ acceptance of Hannity’s relationship to Trump and his circle.
“Even if you are a partisan network, with a clear political ideology, you want your talent to place their loyalties with the audience, not the sources,” McBride said, “unless your true objective has nothing to do with serving your audience, but your true objective actually is to carry out a political agenda.” ●
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.