The revelation that Sean Hannity was a client to President Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney — and never disclosed the apparent conflict — is testing the Fox News host’s track record of skating through controversies, though the network is so far publicly supporting him.
In a dramatic twist this week, Hannity was unmasked in court as Michael Cohen’s secret third client as part of a criminal investigation into the attorney. Hannity has denied that he had any formal legal relationship with Cohen, framing their discussions as “minimal” and suggesting they were about “real estate.”
But the fact that Hannity spoke extensively on air about an FBI raid on Cohen’s home and office last week without disclosing he was a client earned rebukes from media ethicists, Fox News personalities and even his own guests.
The controversy deepened Tuesday as The Atlantic reported that Hannity was linked to two other lawyers with close ties to the president: Jay Sekulow, a personal attorney working on Trump‘s response to special counsel Robert Mueller‘s investigation into Russian election meddling, and Victoria Toensing, whose husband, Joe diGenova, almost joined the president‘s legal team. Sekulow did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Officially, Fox News is standing behind Hannity. A Fox News spokesperson said Tuesday that the network was previously “unaware” of the ties between Hannity and Cohen, but that the host “continues to have our full support.”
“While FOX News was unaware of Sean Hannity’s informal relationship with Michael Cohen and was surprised by the announcement in court yesterday, we have reviewed the matter and spoken to Sean and he continues to have our full support,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
In response to The Atlantic‘s report, the network also pointed to the fact that Hannity acknowledged on his show in May 2017 that Sekulow had “done legal work for me in the past.“
Hannity, a major moneymaker for the network who personally made $36 million from June 2016 to June 2017, is no stranger to controversy. During the 2016 campaign, Hannity was sharply criticized for appearing in a pro-Trump campaign ad, and last year became the subject of a large-scale boycott campaign after propagating conspiracy theories surrounding the death of Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer.
But while other Fox News hosts including Bill O’Reilly and Eric Bolling have been ousted over sexual harassment allegations, Hannity has thus far weathered his ethics-related controversies with support from his network.
After Hannity detailed his reasoning for supporting Trump in an eight-minute #HEARTLAND4TRUMP promotional video in September 2016, Fox News barred him from appearing in additional political videos for the remainder of the campaign. But no additional disciplinary actions were disclosed.
Hannity again faced widespread pushback after he lent his prominent platform to amplify debunked theories surrounding the death of Rich, leading some advertisers to drop his program. In response, Fox News defended Hannity, saying in a statement that “millions of Americans make the decision to join him every night and the audience relationship is stronger than ever.”
The Fox News host faced the latest controversy head-on on Monday, telling listeners on his radio show that Cohen “never represented me in any matter” and that he “never retained him” in a formal capacity, while acknowledging that he had discussed legal matters with the attorney and expected those conversations to be kept confidential.
But his justification for the communications, and his failure to disclose them on air, drew immediate backlash and sparked a discussion on his own show.
“I just think that he should now acknowledge that he made a mistake and that he should’ve made the disclosure and indicate that he will going forward make any disclosure that are required,” said Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz, a frequent Fox News guest, during an interview with POLITICO on Tuesday.
Dershowitz, who discussed the FBI raids on Cohen with Hannity on air last week, told the Fox News host during Monday’s edition of “Hannity” that he should have made his entanglements more clear to viewers.
“I felt obliged to call him out on it yesterday because I was on his show when he talked about Cohen,” Dershowitz said. “So it’s very important from my point of view as well that he make that disclosure.”
DiGenova, another guest to discuss the Cohen raid on Hannity’s show last week and again on Monday, told POLITICO that he was “not in the business of giving advice to people about how they should conduct themselves,” when asked whether the host should have disclosed his ties Tuesday morning. DiGenova added that he didn’t “know anything” about Cohen and Hannity’s dealings “other than what I read in the papers.”
The decision to keep the extent of his dealings with Cohen under wraps drew a rare rebuke, however, from a fellow Fox News personality on Monday, when Juan Williams questioned why Hannity “didn’t disclose this earlier.”
“Why, when Sean was on the air strongly an advocate for President Trump — not saying, ‘Hey, I’ve got a relationship with the lawyer,’ I think that’s a question,” Williams said on “The Five.”
Hannity railed against the recent FBI raids on Cohen’s residence, office and hotel — carried out through a referral from Mueller — during numerous segments of his program last week. The host cited the developments as evidence that the special counsel had overstepped in his “partisan” investigation.
In the wake of Monday’s revelation, some analysts and media ethicists said the apparent conflict merited an internal investigation from Fox News. Andrew Tyndall, whose newsletter and website have tracked nightly newscasts for decades, said the network should “indisputably” probe the veracity of Hannity’s claims about his relationship with Cohen.
“If Cohen is telling the truth and Hannity is a bona fide client of his, then Hannity’s oversight, not mentioning is completely inexcusable and under any normal organization would be a firing offense,” Tyndall said in an interview.
But Tyndall argued that Fox News’ apparent lack of any quick disciplinary action was further testament to Hannity’s enduring staying power at the network.
The ouster of O’Reilly amid a sexual misconduct scandal, Tyndall said, showed the network was willing to part with a popular and prominent host, but more details would have to emerge about the nature of Hannity’s relationship with Cohen before Fox News likely takes additional action.
“The fact that they got rid of O’Reilly means that value in terms of audience and celebrity and following, it does not make you bulletproof. So no, absolutely he’s not immune,” Tyndall said of Hannity.
Andrew Seaman, ethics committee chair for the Society of Professional Journalists, said Fox News’ decisions over how to handle Hannity’s controversies are also muddled by his role as an opinion host who is not shy about voicing his political leanings on TV.
“We basically know what we generally should expect from a news anchor,” Seaman said. “We also know that those standards can’t always apply to a lot of people on cable news — like Sean Hannity and other opinionated personalities.”