Once upon a time, it seemed that Sean Hannity was excited about no presidential candidate more than Robert F. Kennedy Jr.
In June, the Fox News host marveled that Kennedy was “surging in the Democratic primary,” potentially meaning that President Biden’s bid for renomination was in jeopardy. Kennedy wasn’t surging in the polls — at least not among Democrats — but Hannity seemed perfectly happy to try to will such a surge into existence.
In late July, he turned over a full hour of his program to Kennedy, the sort of campaign contribution that he normally reserved for Republican candidates (as he did so often before last year’s midterm elections). Kennedy was running against a Democrat, and that was good enough for Hannity. So he welcomed Kennedy to a “town hall” in front of a live audience — though the only one asking questions was Sean Hannity.
Those questions were no less pointed than the ones 2022 Republican candidates faced. Kennedy’s challenge to Biden was framed in near heroic terms, positioning the conspiracy theory enthusiast as the sole person brave enough to challenge the Democratic establishment.
“Many of his fellow Democrats and others in the media mob, make no mistake, they are right now furious with RFK Jr.,” Hannity said as he was introducing his guest. “They seem to loathe his stance on medical freedom and privacy” — a sanitization of Kennedy’s anti-vaccine stance. “They are angry he does not toe the party line on the war in Ukraine and former president Donald Trump. They can’t seem to stand that Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is a free thinker with classic liberal principles. And today, well, today’s Democratic Party is about compliance. It’s about going along. It’s about groupthink.”
So Hannity was happy to provide a soapbox.
About 2.2 million people tuned in to Hannity’s program that night, about in line with Hannity’s regular weeknight audience. They heard Hannity tee up a number of issues on which he could express agreement, from economic insecurity to the effort to sideline hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for covid-19.
Hannity made clear his welcoming intent at the outset.
“We definitely don’t agree on everything,” he said, “but that’s not my role here tonight. We’re not going to shut down Robert F. Kennedy Jr.” He noted that some people wanted to “deplatform” Kennedy — because he regularly spreads misinformation about vaccine safety, though Hannity didn’t mention that. “I actually believe in freedom and freedom of speech and the freedom of the American people to hear things that they may disagree with and ascertain and determine for themselves whether they agree or don’t agree, Hannity solemnly stated.
Then Kennedy announced that he would run not as a Democrat against Biden but as an independent — against both Biden and whoever wins the Republican nomination for president. That almost certainly means running against Hannity’s friend Donald Trump. It also may mean pulling more support from Trump than from Biden, which is very much not what Hannity or other Republicans would like to see.
So, when Kennedy again joined Hannity on Tuesday night, he earned a much briefer and colder reception.
“Everybody is now trying to analyze, you know, whether it there’s a three-way race with you, Donald Trump and Joe Biden,” Hannity said as he began his interview. “You know, who would you more likely draw from? So I hope you don’t mind, but I did a little research on you.”
“You’re pretty liberal,” he continued. “You’ve called for curbing logging, oil drilling, fracking. You wanted to eliminate it and call it a ‘victory for democracy.’ You want to curb U.S. fossil fuel extraction, keep it in the ground. You once tweeted you want a ban on fossil fuel extraction, a ban on fracking. You called the NRA once a terror group. You supported over the years Democrats [Al] Gore, [John] Kerry, [Barack] Obama, Hillary [Clinton]. You praised Bernie Sanders multiple times. You support affirmative action. So why is this party of yours, why didn’t they even allow you to compete? Because that’s as pretty liberal of a record as anybody I know!”
Kennedy responded to this unsubtle line of questioning with a chuckle, noting that Hannity didn’t really ask any question.
“Do you want to talk about my positions, Sean,” he asked, “or do you want to read talking points from the Trump campaign?”
“Excuse me,” Hannity replied. “These are called ‘Hannity points.’ I do my own research.”
This is certainly possible in theory. But it is true that, on Tuesday, the Republican National Committee published a list of Kennedy’s positions intended to frame him as unacceptably liberal. The list included most of the assertions Hannity presented in introducing his guest. It’s also the case that Kennedy’s announcement had already triggered Republican condemnation. Last week, Semafor reported on the Trump campaign’s preparations to undercut the independent. Kennedy can be forgiven for drawing that line.
At times, Hannity’s prosecution of Kennedy on Tuesday was almost revelatory, a glimpse of what might be possible in a world where Hannity didn’t dedicate his show night after night to aiding Trump or Trump’s party.
“Do you still believe the NRA is a terror group?” Hannity asked, for example.
“I support the Second Amendment,” Kennedy replied, “like I do all the amendments in the Constitution …”
“I didn’t ask you if you support the Second Amendment,” Hannity firmly interjected. “In 2018, you said Parkland students are right, the NRA’s a terror group. Do you believe that?”
“I don’t consider the NRA a terror group,” Kennedy replied, seemingly chastened.
The segment ended with Hannity and Kennedy sparring over the feasibility of replacing fossil fuels, with Hannity insisting that Kennedy’s claims weren’t true — something that it’s hard to imagine him saying during a Trump interview. But, then, Hannity’s interviews are focused on helping Trump, not hurting him.
It’s understandable that Kennedy would want to do Hannity’s show, given the uphill task he faces in winning the presidency. But it’s surprising that he wouldn’t have been prepared for a very different reception from Hannity now that he’ll probably be running against Hannity’s friend.