On Wednesday, Fox News aired a televised “town hall” discussion, in which Sean Hannity did some light slap-and-tickle horseplay with Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump for about an hour at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. This event was actually held on Tuesday night, but taping it caused Trump to be 90 minutes late for a rally scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ― which Fox News also wanted to cover. So in the interest of not bigfooting its own candidate, the network made some hasty revisions to its programming schedule.
This has happened before, by the way! During the first night of the Republican National Convention, as the scheduled speakers offered up a litany of Benghazi-related agitprop, Trump was doing a phone interview on Fox News with Bill O’Reilly. This highlights something of a divide between Trump’s overall media strategy and his actual campaign messaging strategy, as well as Trump’s tendency to work one at cross-purposes with the other.
Of course, between the taping of and airing of the Hannity town hall, the Trump campaign made a move to stitch up this gap: It replaced campaign manager Paul Manafort with Steve Bannon of Breitbart News. Now, potential for synergy abounds. A lasting synergy, too ― the relationship between Trump and Breitbart is very true to the ideals of the organization’s deceased founder, and could prove to be fruitful to all parties regardless of what happens in the election.
But now that Trump has formalized his previously informal relationship with his Pravda-wannabe, who knows how Hannity fits into his universe anymore? Fox News obviously enjoys a more prominent perch in the media landscape, as well as a larger (albeit aging) audience, but what Trump seems to respond to, first and foremost, is devotion. And in terms of devotion, let’s face it, Breitbart will outperform all comers. Should the Trump candidacy eventually fold itself into a new media empire, Bannon’s place at the fore could lead to a new congealing of forces.
All of which means that Hannity’s town hall is simultaneously both fresh content and a relic from a bygone era. So let’s appreciate Hannity’s “journalistic” instincts and enjoy all of the questions he asked of Trump this week, if only to size up how well his unadorned ardor for Trump competes in the global marketplace of kissassery. (Those inclined to hear Trump’s answers are invited to watch them here.)
HANNITY: You know I watched, very closely, your speech yesterday, and you were very, very frank, and you talked about this being literally ― this ideology of death must be stopped, you talked about San Bernardino, you talked about Orlando, you talked about Chattanooga, you talked about Paris, France, Germany, Belgium, all of this terror, that’s just from the summer. Is this a war, a clash of civilizations?
Right off the bat, let’s notice a trend that will soon emerge: Hannity likes to list things. He is full of lists, and they are always much longer than they need to be. Part of me thinks Hannity does this because he kind of innately understands that Trump can’t really be counted on to cite all of the examples the host would prefer him to cite. But as this town hall wore on, it also began to seem as if the purpose of these constant lists was just to pad out the proceedings. After all, it’s really hard to produce “interview content” when the “interview” is just a veiled attempt at boosterism. Time for a dose of substance-like substance!
Sean Hannity reads the news, everyone!
HANNITY: You said yesterday that anyone who could not name the enemy was not fit to lead the country, anyone who could not condemn the hatred, the oppression, the violence of radical Islam, lacks the moral clarity to serve as our president.
Some of Hannity’s questions aren’t really questions ― they’re just statements that remind Trump of things he has said or done previously. Given Trump’s famously mercurial memory, you can hardly blame him!
HANNITY: The refugees, you’ll help them, food, water, supplies, medicine, baby formula, but it will be a safe zone that’s protected, you won’t bring them here.
Another list, another reminder. By now, you’re starting to wonder how many genuine questions Hannity plans to ask.
HANNITY: Let me ask you this, I know it was deemed controversial when you said that the founder of ISIS was Obama and the co-founder was Hillary, but yesterday you went into a lot of detail ― you and I ― I remember debating you because I did support Iraq, but I didn’t support leaving early without finishing the job, we had so many Americans bleed and die and risk their lives for Mosul, Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, and Tikrit, and won those cities. And you talked about, even though you were opposed to it, you were opposed to leaving...
Tell you what, man, Hannity keeps you guessing! You never know if the premise he begins with (in this case, a callback to Trump’s “Obama founded ISIS” remarks) is actually going to still matter by the time he gets to the end. Here, we once again have a gentle massage job masquerading as interrogation, in which Hannity forgives his own differences of opinion with Trump over Iraq to almost perfectly protect the candidate from his contradictions. The notion that Trump both opposed the invasion of Iraq and, later, opposed the withdrawal of troops is perfectly incorrect.
Sean Hannity can name a bunch of places in Iraq, though!
HANNITY: You said it’s time for a new approach, but you’re also against sending in ground troops. And this enemy is different from any other enemy, and you mentioned our history of defeating fascism and Naziism and communism and imperial Japan, and you talked all about that. How do you defeat ISIS if you don’t have ground troops?
Ahh! At last, a tricky question ― how will Trump pull off the defeat of ISIS without those proverbial boots on the ground? This is something I’d like to hear more about. Unfortunately, Trump gets a minute into an answer when Hannity stops him to ask him something else.
HANNITY: You know one question I’d like Hillary Clinton asked? I’ve seen the beheading videos. Have any of you taken the time? It is the embodiment of evil in our time. I don’t know if Hillary or Obama have ever watched it, have you watched those videos?
Does Hannity seriously believe this question needs to be asked, or is his well-worn anti-Democrat ire just this hard to keep at bay? Either way, he just wrecked his first really tough question. In an additional irony, after suggesting that Trump’s opponents didn’t have the knowledge or the guts to watch a beheading video, Trump responds to Hannity’s inquiry by saying, “I chose not to.” Brave! Bold! Tough!
HANNITY: If there’s no ground troops, though, you know, you did say a couple of other things, you said the era of nation building is over, and it’s going to come to a quick end, and you’re saying it’s going to come to a quick end, that will mean bombing at a very high level. And every time that happens, you know what the media is going to do, the media is going to find the one area where there is collateral damage, which sadly happens in every war, we’ve been a compassionate nation, how do you do it?
Hannity returns to his original question, only to answer it for Trump by suggesting that ISIS will be defeated by “bombing at a very high level.” (The sky?) He then wanders off into an inane media criticism, in which he simultaneously imagines that we maliciously endeavor to point out the “one area” where such bombings cause “collateral damage,” that “sadly happens in every war.” Yes, there’s only ever “one area” where that happens, and damned if the media doesn’t keep finding it.
Here, we cut to a commercial. Upon our return, Hannity reveals a panel of six people who he introduces as victims of Islamic terrorism. He pauses his questioning of Trump ― the point of this segment isn’t really to procure answers as much as it is to have panel members describe their experiences so Trump can nod gravely and generically agree that terrorism is bad. Once that’s done, we return to the question-and-answer segment with what is, once again, not a question.
HANNITY: These are the real victims, they don’t get a ― you know, Boston happens, we move on, Chattanooga happens, we move on, the people in Orlando are still living in the aftermath of what happens at that...at that nightclub.
This part of the interview is fun to watch because you can really see Hannity’s gears spin as he endeavors to avoid mentioning that the “nightclub” he is referring to was a gay nightclub and that the “people in Orlando” he is discussing were members of that city’s LGBT community. As we’ll later discover, the existence of this community only really matters in a specific context.
HANNITY: I want to get into this, because this is a really important question, you talked about countries that live under Sharia, and about people that want to come here who come from other countries. If you grow up, for example, in Saudi Arabia, which gave the Clinton Foundation up to $25 million, the Clinton library $10 million, okay, and I can’t find any instances where Hillary criticized them. Women can’t drive, women are told how to dress, women are told if they can go to school, or if they can go to work, we know that gays and lesbians in Saudi Arabia can get the death penalty, you can’t build a Jewish temple ― there’s a guy over here with a sign that says “Jews For Trump” ― and you can’t build a Christian church. Would you ever take money from a country that treats gays, lesbians, Jews, and Christians that way?
And that specific context is: As bad as the LGBT community has it in the U.S., they should thank their lucky stars that they aren’t in Saudi Arabia ― and by the way, what about Hillary Clinton? Of course, there is the germ of a really great question here: The Clinton Foundation is, more or less, a giant clearinghouse for political favor-trading and corporate brand-washing, albeit one that occasionally distributes medicine and mosquito netting. Also, Saudi Arabia, to put it charitably, has long been a problematic partner in U.S. diplomatic affairs ― and that’s not a trend that Clinton shows any real willingness to reset, despite her avowed support for human rights.
Nevertheless, the larger question worth asking, in terms of our relationship with the Saudis, isn’t so much the money we take from them but rather the riches and resources they extract from us and what that pays for. And as far as doing business with Saudis goes, well, Trump does that too.
HANNITY: What does it say, though, she claims to be the champion of women’s rights and gay and lesbian rights and freedom of thought and religion?
Hannity actually provided the answer to this question with his previous question, not that anyone is really keeping track. (Trump picked this moment to move on, pivoting to Benghazi.)
Now, let’s enjoy the section of the interview in which Hannity asks about “extreme vetting”!
HANNITY: What is extreme vetting, and what does that mean, and how do you ― for example, if someone grows up in a country where the Clintons take all their money from, if they grow up there, and they think that men can tell women how to dress and they can’t drive and they can’t go to school and they can’t build a church or a temple, and you grow up there, and then you want to come to America, how do you possibly vet what’s in their heart?
There was never any need for Hannity to keep talking after he’d simply asked, “What is extreme vetting?” But he has two other ways of asking the same question, so he’s going to use them!
Trump says “extreme vetting” means that “you get very smart people,” and you use “social media.” Hold up, though, because Hannity wants to ask this question a fourth time.
HANNITY: But you talk about extreme vetting, and you did talk about in the Cold War, we did have ideological test screening, and this goes into your thinking, and...how do you stop, how do you possibly know if somebody grows up under sharia and these extreme viewpoints that are the antithesis of our constitutional...
Once again, Trump’s answer to “how do we vet people” is to say that you vet people by vetting people, duh, and also you use social media.
Got a fifth way of asking this, Sean?
HANNITY: But let me follow-up on that...this is the advancement of a caliphate that wants worldwide either convert or die, here’s my question then: you pointed out that this guy, the father of the Orlando shooter, and he was smiling as you said, and Hillary ― and you talked about her stupidity and her weaknesses. And he’s explained his radical views. What do we do when we find somebody that has extreme views, do we throw them the hell out?
Trump would, indeed, throw the guy out. Let that be a lesson to the father of any criminal who smiles in public, I guess?
After we return from commercial, Hannity is joined by author and mannered concern troll Dr. Sebastian Gorka. As with the panel, this is an exercise in speaking around Trump and giving him opportunities to agree with what other people are saying. “I’m talking as if you’re not here,” Hannity said to Trump at one point, lest he become confused about this arrangement.
Needless to say, Gorka agreed that Trump’s policies were the only ones that would “keep the homeland safe,” which is probably why he was invited on the show in the first place. Give Gorka props, though, because he finally offered the answer to Hannity’s previous question about ground troops that Trump had failed to provide. (That is to say, the United States didn’t need to be the “face” of the war on ISIS, what with so many other countries in the region available to provide cannon fodder. Who knew that Obama’s oft-maligned “leading from behind” approach to the same conflicts would come to be so happily embraced on Fox News?)
Eventually Hannity returns to Trump.
HANNITY: 550% increase that Hillary wants in Syrian refugees, you’re offering to a safe zone, protected militarily―
(Here Trump interjects: “Paid for by somebody else.”)
Paid for by other people. By the way Obama did accumulate more debt than every other president before him combined, but you’d also provide food, water, medicine, supplies, cots, baby formula, that sounds pretty liberal and compassionate.
Still not sure how the simultaneous provision of all these things that other people will pay for is going to happen, but I guess we’ll have to wait for some kind of interview with Trump to learn more.
HANNITY: James Comey, James Clapper, General John Allen, Michael Steinbach, the assistant FBI director, the House Homeland Security Secretary, have all warned us ― and Brennan, our CIA director ― that ISIS will infiltrate this refugee population. So, is Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama gambling with the lives of these American people by taking them in, yes or no?
I’m not sure if this was intended, but for some reason Gorka fielded this question instead of Trump. (No points for guessing how he answered it!)
HANNITY: Is it fair to say that they’ll have blood on their hands if refugees kill Americans?
Again, confusingly, Gorka stepped up to answer this question on Trump’s behalf. When the answer Hannity is seeking is so obvious, and you can count on Trump coming through with the right response, why have some other guy do the job? This is like having a pinch-hitter in a game of T-ball.
One more commercial break, and we return to find that the thunder-stealing Gorka has left the stage.
HANNITY: I know you get advice from a lot of people, it probably drives you crazy at this point. One of the things, I watched your speech and I watched what you did, you laid out everything wrong that you felt that Hillary and Obama have done, you laid out your solutions to how you would handle it differently, the only thing that I know, that friends of mine ― I was at a party the other night ― [affects voice] ‘I know you know Mr. Trump, we love him, please tell him to only talk about Hillary and Obama.’ Cause in 84 days we’re electing a president, and they’re the only two people that matter. What do you say to people who say don’t talk about those things?
Ahh! This is when my ears perk up, because this is a rather interesting question! Hannity seems to be levelling ― in his own obsequious way ― something of a critique at Trump, pertaining to the manner in which he’s been campaigning. Hannity seems to want to drill down on the way that Trump often wanders on the campaign trail, to topics and targets that don’t seem relevant to the task at hand: defeating Hillary Clinton. Right at this moment, I’m wondering if Hannity will sharpen this point.
HANNITY: But if you mention The New York Times, or Mr. Khan, or the judge...do you think it’s better not to talk about them?
And he kind of does! This is a really good window into the contrast between Hannity and Bannon, Trump’s new media manager. What many don’t really appreciate about Hannity is that his embrace of Trump’s anti-establishment, damn-the-GOP-elites métier is a relatively new look for him. Here, he reverts to his GOP party-hack baseline, offering the perspective that Trump might be better served to focus on what Trump’s uneasy Beltway allies believe is the true task at hand, rigorously building the GOP case against Clinton, and leaving all the sideshow distractions aside.
And that is not a thing that Bannon would evince any concern over, at all. To Bannon ― and to Breitbart’s ― mind, Trump’s relentless score-settling and the knives he tosses at various and sundry targets at the campaign trail, including establishment Republicans, are an essential feature of Trump’s appeal and just as important as anything he has to say about Clinton. Hannity’s version of campaigning would be deemed too limited ― and too polite ― a form of political combat, the province of weak losers.
Here, Trump says the issue is simply that the “media is protecting Clinton.” That might end up being the central argument of a conjoined Trump-Breitbart media enterprise, whether Trump wins or loses the election ― that two corrupt political parties and their elite media allies have hopelessly corrupted America’s entire kit and caboodle. (Actually, while my personal perspective on the ins and out of the matter differ substantially from that of the Breitbart hive-mind, I’ll concede that this is in many ways correct.)
This is where the truly enlightening part of this town hall ends, sadly!
HANNITY: I’ve asked you a lot about the economy. Lowest labor participation rate since the ‘70s. Lowest home ownership rate in 51 years. The worst recovery since the ‘40s. We’ve got 12 million more Americans on food stamps. 58 percent increase in the black community on food stamps. We’ve got 8 million to 10 million more people in poverty. My question is this: forgetting the media, I have interviewed you a lot. How...how certain does the wall get built, how certain does Obamacare get repealed?
Ha, well, I’ll just point out that this is literally the first time in this town hall interview that Hannity asks anything about the economy!
The last part of the town hall is a frenzied barrage of questions from Hannity, which I’ll lump together like so:
HANNITY: And you will rebuild the military, that’s a promise? And you will send education back to the states? And you will make America energy independent and do it in four years? And will you appoint originalist justices like Scalia? And you will repeal Obamacare and protect our Second Amendment rights? And those are promises you’re telling the people of Wisconsin?
Clearly, the only answer Hannity needs is “yes,” and as soon as Trump provides it, Hannity interrupts him to move on to the next thing. Literally the entire interview could have been conducted this way, and it would have only taken five minutes, and then Trump wouldn’t have been late to his rally. Alas!
So, there you have it, folks: all of the questions Sean Hannity put to Trump, in a delightfully softball evening in front of dedicated Trump enthusiasts in Wisconsin. Of course, I’ve provided you merely with the text of Hannity’s questions. The subtext of those questions ― “Will you please be my daddy?” ― is something that you’ve probably already surmised.
Editor’s note: Donald Trump regularly incites political violence and is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist and birther who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims — 1.6 billion members of an entire religion — from entering the U.S.
Jason Linkins edits “Eat The Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.