Published On: Tue, Apr 17th, 2018

Fox News defies calls to suspend Sean Hannity for secret link to Michael Cohen

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Fox News is to defy calls for Sean Hannity to be suspended in the wake of the bombshell revelation that he was secretly a client of Donald Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen, the network said Tuesday.

The network issued a statement saying its biggest star had its ‘full support’ – even though he had never told them about the relationship, while repeatedly attacking the FBI raid on Cohen on his show.

‘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 statement said.

The statement, first reported by Fox News media commentator Howard Kurtz, came after mounting criticism of Hannity and his bosses.

Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd became the highest-profile journalist to question Hannity’s integrity and that of the network as he tweeted: ‘No serious news org would allow someone this conflicted to cover this story.’

And Democrats including Media Matters for America, the liberal campaign group which has focused its efforts on attacking Fox News, called for Fox to suspend Hannity, accusing him of an ethical breach.

Backing: The Fox News statement was revealed by its media commentator Howard Kurtz

Backing: The Fox News statement was revealed by its media commentator Howard Kurtz

Friends: Sean Hannity happily posed for a picture with Cohen back in 2015 and posted it on Twitter after the attorney appeared on his syndicated radio show

Friends: Sean Hannity happily posed for a picture with Cohen back in 2015 and posted it on Twitter after the attorney appeared on his syndicated radio show

High-profile intervention: Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd is the most prominent journalist to speak out about Sean Hannity

High-profile intervention: Meet the Press anchor Chuck Todd is the most prominent journalist to speak out about Sean Hannity

But they stopped short of calls for a boycott against him, which they had campaigned for this month against Laura Ingraham, the 10pm Fox News host who mocked Parkland shooting survivor and anti-gun campaign David Hogg.

Hannity was also mocked on MSNBC by Morning Joe’s co-anchors Joe Scarborough and Mike Brzezniski, who compared him to the Simpsons’ news anchor Kent Brockman for his double standards.

Hannity had spoken out on his Fox News show last week repeatedly about the raid on Cohen’s home, office, hotel room and safe deposit box by FBI agents. 

On the day of the raid he said: ‘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. Now, Mueller and Rosenstein have declared what is a legal war on the president.’

And the following night he described the raid on Cohen as ‘an unprecedented abuse of power’

‘The president and his legal team should be preparing to take this all the way to the United States Supreme Court. That’s where we are tonight,’ he said.

But he never told his viewers he had turned to Cohen for legal advice.

His name was only revealed when Cohen’s own lawyers lost a bid to cover up the name of a mystery third client and disclosed it was Hannity.

Court documents said that Hannity had asked for his name to be kept secret and if necessary, an appeal launched to keep it that way – a request which federal Judge Kimba Wood dismissed as not in line with the law.

Michael Cohen’s clients

Donald Trump

Allegation: Cohen paid Stormy Daniels $135,000 to silence her claims that she had sex with President Donald Trump.

Daniels has said that she had sex once with Trump in 2006 and was paid to keep quiet about it.

A former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, has described having a 10-month affair with Trump, which the White House has said Trump denies. 

McDougal said her lawyer at the time secretly negotiated with Cohen on a deal with American Media Inc, publisher of the National Enquirer, which paid her $150,000 in 2016 to keep quiet. 

Elliott Broidy

Broidy is former deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee

Cohen helped arrange a $1.6 million payment to an unidentified Playboy Playmate with whom he had a two-year relationship and who he paid to abort their baby.

Broidy acknowledged on Friday that he had a relationship with a Playboy Playmate and offered to help her financially after she told him she was pregnant.

‘She alone decided that she did not want to continue with the pregnancy and I offered to help her financially during this difficult period. We have not spoken since that time,’ Broidy said in the statement. 

Broidy said Cohen reached out to him after being contacted by the woman’s attorney, Keith Davidson. Broidy said he retained Cohen because Cohen had a prior relationship with Davidson. 

Sean Hannity

Hannity says that he had ‘had brief discussions with him about legal questions about which I wanted his input and perspective’. 

‘Michael Cohen has never represented me in any matter. I never retained him, received an invoice, or paid legal fees… to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third party.’ 

Hannity’s attackers on Tuesday included Scorborough and Brzezinksi, who have made no secret of their own bitter fallout with Trump.

They showed a clip of Kent Brockman, the news anchor on Fox’s The Simpsons saying on air that the word SOB ‘has no place on or off TV – and that’s my two cents’ before turning to the studio and saying ‘that otta hold those SOBs’, then realizing he was still on air.

Brzezinski said: ‘It’s completely staggeringly dishonest with his viewers. 

‘I mean, look, how you can cover the story and not say you’re a part of it?

‘I would fire someone who did that on my network.’ 

Liberal critics, sending an opportunity to castigate the president’s most reliable media booster, also criticized Hannity.

‘That is a serious breach of journalistic ethics that, in any normal newsroom, would lead to a suspension or even firing,’ it said in a blog post.

Democratic Congresswoman Jackie Speier tweeted: ‘Hannity needs to be put on leave immediately. How can a network claim to be “fair and balanced” when their top anchor has a relationship with Cohen — Trump’s enforcer and main conduit for info and shady deals?’

Fox News calls Hannity a host, not an anchor, and says that opinion shows in the evening are broadcast to different standards from news ones during the day. The broadcaster himself has shifted position repeatedly on whether he considers himself a journalist.

He is in regular contact with Trump, who has hosted him at the White House for dinner.

Journalism ethicists said Hannity was wrong not to have told his viewers about his dealings with Cohen.

Samuel Freedman, a Columbia Journalism professor, told CNBC: ‘It’s clearly an ethical violation. I don’t think they’ll do it, but I think they should fire him.’

Indira Lakshmanan, journalism ethics chair at the Poynter Institute, told Politico: ‘If you want to maintain credibility with an audience, and be honest with them, you have to disclose all facts.’

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said: ‘We’re talking about one of the most important news stories of this time and he did not disclose his connection to it while commenting on it.’

Fox News had covered the disclosure on Monday afternoon, and Hannity himself was on his syndicated radio show when his name was revealed.

But any threat to its 9pm show host will be taken seriously by the network which lost Bill O’Reilly, its biggest star, because of revelations of massive payoffs to women who accused him of sexual harassment. 

He and MSNBC’s ultra-liberal 9pm host Rachel Maddow have been neck and neck in recent months in the race to take the top ratings slot in the ‘demographic’, the 25t o 54-year-old viewers who are the key to commercial success. Hannity has been consistently ahead in overall ratings. 

Hannity, 56, was unrepentant on his own show and used his website on Tuesday morning to repeat his assertions that his relationship with Cohen did not involve the lawyer acting for him with a third party.

The host was even upbraided on his own show by Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor who has himself become a Trump confidant, over why the anchor had failed to mention his ties to Cohen.

Dershowitz, who had been invited on the show to discuss former FBI head James Comey, interrupted the segment to challenge Hannity on his relationship with the lawyer.

‘I do want to say, I really think that you should have disclosed your relationship with Cohen when you talked about him on this show,’ he told the host.

‘You could have said just you had asked him for advice or whatever. But I think it would have been much much better if you had disclosed that relationship.’

Hannity butted in, telling the professor that if he had ‘understood the nature’ of the relationship, he’d see ‘it was minimal.’ 

Comparison: MSNBC's Morning Joe showed a clip of The Simpsons news anchor Kent Brockman being caught having double standards

Comparison: MSNBC's Morning Joe showed a clip of The Simpsons news anchor Kent Brockman being caught having double standards

Comparison: MSNBC’s Morning Joe showed a clip of The Simpsons news anchor Kent Brockman being caught having double standards

Fire him: Mika Brzezinski said that if it was her decision, Hannity would have been booted off the air

Fire him: Mika Brzezinski said that if it was her decision, Hannity would have been booted off the air

Alan Dershowitz

Sean Hannity claimed he only had a 'minimal' relationship with Trump's lawyer Michael Cohen during his first television appearance after he was outed as a secret client on Monday

Yale University Professor Alan Dershowitz (left) challenged Sean Hannity (right, during his Monday show) over why the anchor had failed to mention his ties to Michael Cohen 

Losing day: Michael Cohen left federal court in Manhattan after losing first his attempt to keep Sean Hannity’s name secret and then his application for a temporary restraining order to keep the FBI and federal prosecutors from looking at the evidence seized in raids on him last week

‘You should have said that and that would have been fair to say, that it was minimal,’ Dershowitz fired back.

‘You were in a tough position because you had to talk about Cohen and you didn’t want the fact that you had spoken to him revealed, and you have the right by the way not to reveal that.’

‘I have the right to privacy, I do,’ Hannity responded. ‘It was such a minor relationship, it was to do with real estate, nothing political.’ 

Hannity continued to downplay his relationship with the lawyer throughout the show, saying he’d only ever asked him for legal advice on real estate. 

‘Here’s the truth,’ he announced at the very end of his show, ‘Michael Cohen never represented me in any legal matter, I never retained his services, I never received an invoice, I never paid Michael Cohen for legal fees.

‘I did have occasional, brief conversations with Michel about legal questions I had where I was looking for input and perspective. My discussion with Michael Cohen never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions.’ 

‘They never involved… a third party, a third group, at all. My questions were exclusively focused on real estate. I hate the stock market, I prefer real estate, Micheal knows real estate. I never asked Michael Cohen to bring this  proceeding on my behalf. I have no personal interests in this legal matter, that’s all there is nothing more.’  

The show ended with Hannity bantering with fellow Fox host Laura Ingraham who has faced her own share of controversy, after being subject to a boycott last month for mocking one of the survivors of the mass shooting at a school in Parkland, Florida.

She joked that she was glad that Hannity was taking the pressure of her.   

‘You’re like my brother,’ Ingraham said. ‘But I’m glad for, like a millisecond, the heat’s off me and on you.’

‘I appreciate that… that’s like a sibling,’ Hannity responded, laughing. ‘I hope the heat’s on you, not me.

Hannity found an ally in fellow Fox host Tucker Carlson on Monday, who accused liberals of trying to sacrifice attorney-client if it meant hurting Trump.

‘Sean Hannity is a talk show host, he’s not under investigation by anyone for anything,’ said Carlson. ‘Who he hires as a lawyer and why is nobody’s business. No judge has a right to violate his privacy or anybody else’s.’ 

‘The point of the Russia investigation is not to find collusion. There was no collusion. Everybody knows that and everyone’s always known that. The point is and was to hurt Trump and anybody close to Trump. By the way, it’s working. Now maybe you hate Trump and you’re happy about that, but what are the rest of us losing in this process? Attorney-client privilege no longer means anything. Neither does privacy or public reputation or fairness.’

In an earlier statement on Monday, Hannity conceded he ‘may have given (Cohen) ten bucks’ and that he wanted his name kept secret after a judge ordered Cohen’s own attorneys to say who all his legal clients were.

But he denied Cohen performed the services he offered to Trump or his other known client, the disgraced Republican fundraiser who he helped pay $1.6 million to the Playboy model lover who aborted their child. 

At a court hearing watched by Daniels herself, Cohen had tried to keep one of his three clients’ names secret, claiming that it would cause the broadcaster ’embarrassment’ or ‘harm’ for their association to be made public. 

But in Manhattan, U.S. district court Judge Kimba Wood ended that bid and ordered Hannity’s name released.

‘I understand he doesn’t want his name out there. That’s not enough under the law,’ she said, ordering Cohen’s attorney to make it public – prompting laughter in court as he said: ‘Sean Hannity.’

Shortly after his name was disclosed, Hannity said on his radio show ‘we have been friends a long time’ and that he ‘may have given him ten bucks’. ‘Michael never represented me in any matter, I never retained him in the traditional sense,’ he said.

He added on Twitter that he ‘had brief discussions’ which he called ‘de minimis’ – trivial – and ‘almost exclusively about real estate’. 

At the hearing, Trump’s attorney Cohen was trying to stop the FBI looking at the huge amount of evidence seized in the raid because it is subject to attorney-client privilege.

Lawyers for Cohen said that as well as material which was covered by attorney-client privilege with Trump, material relating to other clients was seized.

Cohen made a lengthy legal submission to Judge Wood before the hearing which revealed that he had just three legal clients in the last year, the main one being Trump.

He said the other named client was Elliott Broidy, who was deputy finance chair of the Republican National Committee until he quit last Friday, when it was revealed Cohen had helped arrange a $1.6 million payment to a Playboy Playmate with whom he had a two-year relationship and who he paid to abort their baby.

He also disclosed that seven other clients had received non-legal ‘strategy advice’ from him and did not name them. None of their names were requested by the judge in court Monday. 

In court, Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan said that the ‘third client’ was a ‘publicly prominent individual’ who had asked that his name not be disclosed because he did not want to be associated with the criminal proceedings. Ryan asked that the name be put under seal with assurances from the prosecutor’s office that it not be released.

Harrison also suggested that the release of the third client’s name ‘will affect people’s willingness to consult an attorney’ – a comment which was met by a ripple of laughter in the courtroom.

Assistant U.S. attorney Thomas McKay complained about the lack of names saying ‘Mr Cohen has more attorneys than he has clients’ and saying that the clients could not ‘hide behind over-broad claims of privilege’.

‘The only thing that makes this case unusual is one of his [Cohen’s] clients is the President,’ McKay said. ‘In order for the public to see that fairness is upheld, Trump and Cohen should not be given any special treatment.’

A lawyer for media outlets including CNN, the New York Times and the Associated Press also told the judge that there was ‘intense public interest’ in the name emerging.

Daniels’ attorney Michael Avenatti was in court and conferred with other lawyers but did not address the judge. 

Judge Wood then told Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan that the name had to emerge, prompting him to say ‘Sean Hannity.’ Cohen did not move his head or show any apparent emotion.

In a statement issued via Fox News, Hannity did not address why he had wanted his name kept secret in his statement which 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. I assumed those conversations were confidential, but to be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third party.’

On his radio show, which was broadcasting at the same time as the hearing, Hannity added: ‘I have eight attorneys that I use for varying things in my life, and in this particular case I like to have people I can run questions by.’ 

During his live radio show, he seemed flustered that he was getting a steady stream of phone and email messages about it.

‘I don’t think this is such a big deal,’ he said. ‘Why do you think the media is going crazy on this?’

The dramatic twist came in a court hearing which revolves around whether the material is subject to attorney-client privilege and whether Cohen – and Trump – can stop completely or restrict the FBI and federal prosecutors from looking at it.

Cohen and Trump both lost the first round when the judge refused to issue a temporary restraining order stopping the federal authorities from looking at the material.  

HOW TRUMP’S BID TO BLOCK ACCESS TO EVIDENCE IS ABOUT CRUCIAL DOCTRINE OF ATTORNEY-CLIENT PRIVILEGE

 What is attorney-client privilege?

Attorney-client privilege is a long-standing doctrine of U.S. law that allows the subject of a lawsuit or criminal case to shield their communications with legal counsel.

Lawyers can invoke the privilege to avoid testifying about conversations with clients or turning over emails or other correspondence. The related work-product privilege covers documents produced in the course of a legal representation.

The traditional justification for attorney-client privilege is that the legal system operates more fairly when people are able to speak candidly with lawyers, said Jens David Ohlin, a professor of criminal law at Cornell Law School.

‘If clients feel like whatever they disclose to attorneys will be turned over to authorities, they won’t feel free to talk openly,’ Ohlin said.

Does that mean all communications with a lawyer are protected?

No, the privilege only covers communications relating to legal advice, said Lisa Kern Griffin, a former federal prosecutor and a professor at Duke University School of Law. It does not protect a person’s discussion of business, personal, or financial matters with a lawyer if they are unrelated to a legal representation.

Crucially, attorney-client privilege also does not apply to communications by a lawyer in furtherance of a crime or fraud.

Does privilege make it harder to get a warrant to search a lawyer’s office?

Yes. The U.S. Department of Justice has a policy of only raiding law offices if less intrusive approaches, like issuing a request for documents known as a subpoena, could compromise the investigation or result in the destruction of evidence.

Under department policy, the raid of Cohen’s offices required multiple levels of authorization by high-level officials.

‘It is very unusual to take such an action,’ said Griffin. ‘It suggests there is deep criminality at issue and real concern that just asking for the documents won’t be enough to ensure they are turned over.’

The application would then need to be approved by a federal judge tasked with determining whether there is probable cause to believe the search would produce evidence of a particular crime.

How can prosecutors make sure they have not improperly obtained privileged information?

Griffin said the search warrant authorizing the raid would have described with specificity the items FBI agents could seize.

Moreover, U.S. courts have said prosecutors must set up a review process to ensure that attorney-client communications are not being improperly used as evidence.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan, which is handling the investigation, will likely have ‘set up a team of lawyers whose only job and only connection to the case is to determine whether material is privileged or not,’ said Ohlin.

This team ‘would ensure that prosecutors looking into criminality are not exposed to privileged information that could taint their investigation,’ said Griffin.

Assessments made by the so-called ‘dirty team’ or ‘taint team’ could be challenged in court by Cohen if he is charged with a crime, Ohlin said.

What if agents find evidence of a crime that is not specifically covered by a warrant?

A narrow warrant does not mean prosecutors must disregard evidence of potential crimes they were not initially investigating, said Andrew Wright, former associate counsel in the Obama White House and a professor at Savannah Law School.

‘If police have a warrant to search for a gun and go into a person’s house and find drugs, they can use that evidence,’ Wright said. ‘It is the same thing with business records.’

 

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