On 16 April 2018, a court hearing relating to a federal criminal investigation of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen took an unexpected twist when it emerged that Fox News host and frequent conspiracy theory cheerleader Sean Hannity was one of his clients.
Predictably, perhaps, news of Hannity’s relationship with Trump’s embattled lawyer prompted conspiracy trolls to spread baseless stories that Hannity had been outed by the “deep state.” However, Hannity’s name had been revealed as the result of a judge’s order after federal prosecutors argued that the identity of an anonymous Cohen client (Hannity) should be made known for the sake of transparency.
The news came after Hannity had for days railed against a Federal Bureau of Investigation raid on Cohen’s office, home and hotel room in execution of search warrants the previous week. Hannity did not disclose to his audience that Cohen was also his attorney. In a statement, Hannity said:
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 response to some wild speculation, let me make clear that I did not ask Michael Cohen to bring this proceeding on my behalf, I have no personal interest in this proceeding, and, in fact, asked that my de minimis discussions with Michael Cohen, which dealt almost exclusively about real estate, not be made a part of this proceeding.
Hannity frequently traffics the “deep state” conspiracy theory on his show and on social media, and Internet hucksters quickly picked up the trail, producing a stream of baseless stories that spread, as usual, via disreputable web sites and social media trolls.
For example, TheGatewayPundit.com, an unreliable site currently being sued for defamation after accusing an innocent person of being the suspect accused of killing a counter-protester at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August 2017, published a story with the extraordinarily misleading headline, “BREAKING: Sean Hannity Responds After Deep State Alleges He Was Michael Cohen’s 3rd Client.”
Alt-right Twitter troll Jack Posobiec drew on another tired conspiracy theory to insinuate that billionaire philanthropist George Soros pulled the strings, causing the judge to identify Hannity as one of Cohen’s clients:
The judge who ordered Sean Hannity’s name outed performed George Soros’ wedding pic.twitter.com/33evQeRCZ0
— Jack Posobiec (@JackPosobiec) April 16, 2018
Unsurprisingly, Alex Jones’s conspiracy network InfoWars quickly followed suit with paranoid reporting that conflated two unrelated events: In 2013, Judge Kimba Wood officiated Soros’s wedding. Five years later, she presided over the Cohen hearing in which Hannity was named as his client. This was presented as shadowy malfeasance by Jones and his ilk who apparently believe Soros is an all-powerful puppeteer who, despite every indication to the contrary, controls the world:
The U.S. District judge who ordered Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen to identify Sean Hannity had officiated billionaire George Soros’ wedding in 2013.
Judge Kimba Wood officiated the “non-denominational” wedding between Soros and his third wife Tamiko Bolton in 2013 in Bedford, New York.
Suddenly, Wood’s decision to force Cohen to disclose his clients becomes clear.
Jared Holt, a writer for Right Wing Watch — a web site operated by the liberal advocacy nonprofit group People for the American Way, which tracks and monitors right-wing extremist rhetoric — told us the “deep state” theme was ready-made for the news about Hannity:
Every single night on Sean Hannity’s program there’s some kind of talk about the deep state in one form or another. It’s used as a sort of bludgeon to discredit any federal investigation into the goings on of Trump’s campaign and his associates. It was almost a natural fit that the deep state conspiracy theories that he s putting forward eventually got applied to his own case. I guess it’s not incredibly surprising, but it truly came full circle.
The “deep state” conspiracy theory posits that the hand of a “shadow government” controls all, and that it is mounting a campaign to oust President Trump and undo his supporters; it is often promoted by Trump himself. (There is no clear reason given that an authoritarian, murderous “shadow government” would allow a select few to continue talking about its existence on public airwaves that potentially reach millions of viewers or listeners, but no one ever seems to ask.)
According to whistleblower Christopher Wylie, the phrase “deep state” was tested by scandal-plagued psychographics firm Cambridge Analytica on Facebook users to gauge their reaction without their knowledge or consent.
Many of the personalities latching on to this most recent claim also went to the mat for other outlandish ideas, including the inexplicably prominent PizzaGate yarn that held Trump’s 2016 rival Hillary Clinton was involved in a pedophile ring run out of the basement a Washington, D.C. pizzeria (the restaurant has no basement).
For his part, Hannity was one of the most vocal proponents of the baseless claim that Seth Rich, a murdered Democratic National Committee staffer, had stolen Clinton’s emails in the days leading up to the election instead of Russian hackers. Rich’s family is now suing Fox News over the botched reporting of that story and its aftermath.