By ALAN FEUER, MICHAEL M. GRYNBAUM and JOHN KOBLIN
NEW YORK – From his Fox News pulpit, Sean Hannity has been one of the most ardent supporters of President Donald Trump, cheering his agenda and excoriating his enemies.
He has gone from giving advice on messaging and strategy to Trump and his advisers during the 2016 campaign to dining with him at the White House and Mar-a-Lago.
Now, Hannity finds himself aligned even more closely with the president.
During a hearing at a packed courtroom in Manhattan on Monday, he was named as a client of Trump’s longtime personal lawyer and fixer, Michael D. Cohen.
That revelation nudged the conservative commentator into the orbit of those who have lately come under legal scrutiny related to the investigations of Trump and his associates by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, and the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. Both inquiries have provided fodder for Hannity’s prime-time cable show and nationally syndicated radio program.
The host’s closeness with the president may not sit well with media watchdogs, but the cozy relationship has been good for the Hannity business: “Hannity” is the most-watched cable news program, averaging 3.2 million viewers in the first quarter of 2018, up from 1.8 million in the early months of 2016.
The courtroom disclosure about Hannity occurred during the expanding criminal investigation into Cohen by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. FBI agents raided Cohen’s home, office and hotel room on the morning of April 9, a move that Trump called an “attack on our country.”
In a legal filing before the hearing Monday, Cohen said that, since 2017, he had worked as a lawyer for 10 clients, seven of whom he served by providing “strategic advice and business consulting.”
The other three comprised Trump, the Republican fundraiser Elliott Broidy and a third person who went unnamed.
The mystery was solved when Kimba M. Wood, a judge for the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, ordered that Cohen’s lawyer, Stephen Ryan, disclose the name of the client in question – who turned out to be Hannity.
Hannity denied on Monday that he was a client of Cohen’s, saying that he had never paid him for his services and that his discussions with him centered on real estate.
The surprise naming of Hannity took place after several minutes of back and forth among government representatives, members of Cohen’s legal team and Wood.
Before the name was revealed, Ryan argued that the mystery client was a “prominent person” who wanted to keep his identity a secret because he would be “embarrassed” to be identified as having sought Cohen’s counsel.
Robert D. Balin, a lawyer for various media outlets, including The New York Times, CNN and others, interrupted the hearing to argue that embarrassment was not a sufficient cause to withhold a client’s name, and Wood agreed.
After Hannity was named, there were audible gasps from the spectators.
The hearing Monday resulted from a challenge by Cohen’s lawyers, who argued for the appointment of a “special master” to examine the records seized during the federal raid on April 9. The exact nature of Cohen’s work for Hannity is unclear.
On Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith reported that his colleague had been named as a client of Cohen’s. He did so after other news outlets had broken the story, saying that it was time for him to address “the elephant in the room.”
At roughly the same time, Hannity, on his radio show, said it was strange to see his name appearing on Fox News and wondered aloud if he should release a statement.
Just before 4 p.m., he posted a message on Twitter: “Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees. I have occasionally had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective.”
In a follow-up tweet, Hannity added, “I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.”
The reference to a third party seemed to be an allusion to one of Cohen’s specialties: drawing up confidential settlements. The lawyer has acknowledged paying $130,000 to Stephanie Clifford, an adult-film actress known as Stormy Daniels, as part of a nondisclosure agreement to secure her silence soon before Election Day in 2016.
Last week, it came to light that Cohen had arranged for Broidy to pay $1.6 million to a former Playboy model, Shera Bechard, who became pregnant during an affair with Broidy. After the confidential deal became public, Broidy resigned from his post as a deputy finance chairman of the Republican Party.
After offering his initial statements on Cohen, Hannity returned to Twitter late Monday afternoon to provide some detail, saying that his “de minimis discussions with Michael Cohen” had been “almost exclusively about real estate.”
In the opening moments of “Hannity” on April 9 – the night of the FBI raids on Cohen – Hannity, in high dudgeon, told his viewers to “keep in mind that Cohen was never part of the Trump administration or the Trump campaign.”
“This is now officially an all-hands-on-deck effort to totally malign and, if possible, impeach the president of the United States,” the host added.
Without mentioning his relationship with Cohen, he continued, “Now, what that means is, Mueller’s witch-hunt investigation is now a runaway train that is clearly careening off the tracks.”
There is on-air evidence that Hannity and Cohen go way back. In January 2017, shortly before the inaugural, Cohen was a guest on Hannity’s radio show. The host described him as Trump’s lawyer and then added, “Also, full disclosure: a personal friend of mine, long before this election ever started.”
Amid the banter, the two mentioned talking with each other during late-night phone calls and discussed how Trump’s enemies would be gunning for him after he took the Oval Office.
“You and I have discussed this – they are going to try to destroy Donald Trump,” Hannity said.
“And I’m going to make this statement to your audience: There is no way in the world I’m going to let it happen,” Cohen replied.
Many years before Trump was a candidate, Hannity was there for him. In 2011, when Trump was making the media rounds to promote an unfounded conspiracy theory – the so-called birther theory – that President Barack Obama had not been born in the United States, Hannity gave him a forum on his radio and television shows.
Now the top ratings draw at Fox News, Hannity has been described by colleagues as enjoying free rein inside the network.
Some journalists there have grumbled about his friendly interviews with Trump. Smith, in an interview in March, said the network’s prime time commentators “don’t really have rules,” prompting Hannity to call him “clueless” and to declare his own show “REAL NEWS.”
The revelation of Hannity’s relationship with Cohen is likely to only ratchet those tensions higher.