What Sean Hannity wanted to talk about on Monday night was the extent to which the Department of Justice is corrupt.

That’s how he began his show, with a fumbling tirade about how there’s a double standard when it comes to investigations by the federal government and so on.

If you aren’t a regular viewer of Hannity’s program, a lot of his argument might have seemed hard to follow; like Donald Trump, he has built up an extensive glossary of shorthands for purported misbehavior by the government that just get sprinkled into whatever new thing he’s incensed about.

The centerpiece of the monologue was testimony from an IRS whistleblower released by congressional Republicans last week. But it also looped in complaints about the coverage of President Biden’s son Hunter’s laptop during the 2020 election, material sourced to that laptop, comments from Attorney General Merrick Garland and House Republicans’ secondhand bribery allegations that have failed to gain traction.

Fundamentally, though, the constituent elements of the rant didn’t matter, as they never do. Hannity isn’t conveying the news to his audience. He’s conveying a framework for perceiving politics — and, particularly, how to perceive Trump in the best possible light. Hannity was arguing that the Justice Department was corrupt in the same way that high-schoolers complain about a teacher they dislike, offering up a pastiche of coded or vague claims that should be treated with skepticism.

Anyway, that is what the Fox News host wanted to talk about. But less than an hour before his show began, his producers had to slot in something else: audio obtained by CNN in which Trump is heard referring to classified documents during a 2021 conversation at his golf club in New Jersey. Suddenly Hannity’s program had to pivot from attacking the Justice Department broadly — itself in service to Trump — to defending Trump on this specific thing.

It went poorly.

“Fake news CNN has exclusively apparently obtained another audio recording used as evidence in Trump’s document case,” Hannity began. “It’s kind of weird because there are virtually no leaks from Biden’s document investigation, if there even really is one. It’s almost as if we have a two-tiered system of justice, isn’t it?”

Immediately, you see how this works. The investigation into Biden’s possession of classified documents is not understood to be commensurate to Trump’s in any significant way. There’s no indication that Biden knew he had classified documents, much less tried to retain them. For Hannity’s point to stand, it would require that (1) the recording obtained by CNN was leaked by the Justice Department and (2) that there exists a recording incriminating Biden in the same way — appearing to show someone a classified document and mentioning that it’s classified — but without that recording similarly leaking. But Hannity’s viewers aren’t pausing to consider that. They’re hearing the code-phrase — “two-tiered system of justice” — and (Hannity hopes) nodding.

Hannity then introduced his guests: New York Post writer Miranda Devine (who has focused heavily on the Hunter Biden laptop) and Donald Trump adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller. A surefire way to get unbiased assessments of an allegation against someone is to interview the guy who literally tells the person what to say.

The government is “skilled at the art and artistry that’s often deployed in foreign countries of how to control the narrative in our country,” Miller said in the middle of his angry response. “My message to the American people is, don’t fall for it.”

See, the government wants you to think that Trump telling people that he has a document that he didn’t declassify is bad so that they can control the narrative. (Never mind that there’s no evidence the source was the government and not, say, one of the people in the room as Trump was talking about the document.) Miller is trying to present the credulous position (Trump’s actions are innocent) as the savvy one — but “don’t fall for it” lands a bit differently when we’re talking about an actual audio recording of Trump’s words. What are we not falling for, exactly?

After a commercial break, Hannity played the audio itself. You can hear Trump at his Bedminster club showing something to the writer with whom he was speaking, mentioning that it’s secret and that it would need to be declassified, though he no longer had the power to do so.

But that’s not what Hannity claimed to have heard.

“Now, while he did say, you know, this is stuff that he got from the military that would be highly confidential and secret and says at another point as president, I could have declassified it, now I couldn’t,” Hannity began. “But now, you know, it would still be a secret. That does not confirm for me whether or not specifically this document was declassified or not.” And then, some additional skepticism: “Was that actually the real document or is it a story that he was telling?”

This recording was mentioned in the indictment made public earlier this month. It is a very safe assumption that the special counsel investigating Trump’s handling of documents has testimony from people in the room about what Trump was holding as he spoke and what it looked like, eliminating Hannity’s putative objections. But that’s a Hannity monologue for a later day. Today he’s working with what he’s got.

As when he went on to note “that particular document was never found by the special counsel or by the raid at Mar-a-Lago,” implying that maybe there was no such document. But this is not exonerating. The FBI search at Mar-a-Lago that turned up more than 100 documents that his lawyers had attested didn’t exist was not a search of Bedminster. Trump’s attorneys searched Bedminster and say they located no additional documents.

Hannity turned to former George W. Bush press secretary Ari Fleischer, who was not willing to go along with Hannity’s arguments.

“I don’t know what his defense will be over this document, but as somebody who used to routinely handle classified information, I do have to say that is not how you are supposed to handle it,” Fleischer said. His other guest, former Trump press secretary and current Fox News host Kayleigh McEnany, was similarly hesitant to go along with the Trump-did-nothing-demonstrably-wrong line.

Hannity tried another tack, suggesting that the situation was comparable to Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state. (It isn’t, as shown here and here.) Ultimately, he simply reverted to his existing framework.

“I’m standing by my original monologue that said, we have a corrupt government and we have a weaponized DOJ and a weaponized FBI,” he said to conclude the segment. “And the American people, I think, are seeing it more and more. It is becoming more transparent every day.”

That is actually very revealing when you consider the standard of evidence Hannity allowed in his monologue. For example, he summarized the allegations of bribery against Biden — something he has hyped on his show repeatedly for the past two months — as follows:

“Just so we’re clear, it’s documented in [an FBI] 1023 form: Joe Biden, he was accused by a trusted and well-paid FBI source of taking foreign bribes from a Ukrainian foreign national in exchange for policy decisions when he was vice president.”

The on-screen graphic reflected this claim.

But this is not true. Biden wasn’t accused by a highly credible source, he was accused by someone who spoke with a highly credible FBI informant. This allegation depends entirely on a claim made by an executive in Ukraine who spoke with the informant several years ago. It was reported to the FBI in 2020 while the Justice Department was run not by Merrick Garland but by William P. Barr.

This secondhand allegation, though, impugns Biden. So Hannity treats it as established fact. Trump himself saying on tape that he has a secret document that he can’t declassify? Eh, that doesn’t really mean anything, if you think about it.

Hannity’s real problem, of course, was that he was on the air so soon after CNN obtained the tape. Others got to wait to hear the official line from Trump himself, which came in a social media post a few hours later.

The tape, Trump claimed, “is actually an exoneration, rather than what they would have you believe.” Just like the transcript of his call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was actually perfect.

Tune in Tuesday night to hear Hannity explain how it is, in fact, an exoneration after all.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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