All of Hell’s Kitchen broke loose on Monday when Michael Cohen’s infamous “mystery client” was revealed in court to be Fox News host Sean Hannity. (Cohen’s attorneys had argued that revealing the name of the client, who the world now knows is Hannity, was “likely to be embarrassing or detrimental to the client,” but the judge in the case ruled that embarrassment did not amount to a sufficient legal defense.) This led to plenty of jokes as Hannity’s radio program went dead silent while he undoubtedly scrambled to assess the potential damage of the revelation, as well as how to respond to it. When Hannity finally emerged from his cocoon, he offered a number of contradictory explanations for his name surfacing in open court as a client of a lawyer famous for arranging secret hush-payments to mistresses. Needless to say, many are speculating about exactly what the Trump superfan is trying to hide.
In a pair of tweets, Hannity first claimed that Cohen “has never represented me in any matter.” That is to say, Hannity says he never paid a retainer or other legal fees or even saw an invoice from Cohen. He did, however, admit to asking Cohen “legal questions” for “input and perspective.” Hannity then said that he believed these discussions were “confidential,” but he insisted, “[T]o be absolutely clear they never involved any matter between me and a third-party.”
Is Hannity Truly Michael Cohen’s Client?
Yes. Not only did Cohen’s lawyers state this fact in court, but Hannity admitted as much while also (weakly) attempting to deny it. To clarify, Hannity both denied legal representation by Cohen while also admitting to asking him for legal advice and believing that — as with an attorney-client relationship — that these conversations would remain secret. So, he’s attempting to claim the benefits of attorney-client privilege while also insisting that Cohen was not his attorney. Hannity’s obviously trying to have it both ways, essentially saying, “Michael Cohen has never been my lawyer, but anything we discussed should be kept private because of attorney/client privilege.”
That said, one of the first things that law professors teach students is how to avoid this type of situation. That is, if friends or family ask for casual legal advice, lawyers are advised to not indulge them because this means that these people are then clients. That’s precisely the reason why courthouse employees (whether they are licensed attorneys or not) will not offer legal instruction (even for a simple form) and advise people to hire an attorney.
That’s not all. On his radio show, Hannity then made a Breaking Bad-esque statement whe he admitted that he “might have handed him 10 bucks [and said,] ‘I definitely want your attorney-client privilege on this’ … something like that.” In this way, Hannity is admitting that he paid Cohen (at least) a nominal amount of money, which has been ruled in loads of cases to be enough financial consideration (that is, the amount agreed upon by two parties) to create the basis of an implicit contract. So, even without an invoice and even if Hannity and Cohen only agreed verbally on $10 for his legal services, this exchange of money only further proves that Hannity was indeed Cohen’s client.
There’s also the question of why Hannity, who reportedly made $36 million in 2017, was seeking essentially pro-bono legal services from Cohen, which only adds another shady layer to this spectacle. As for Hannity’s wish to remain a secret client and his vehement protests upon revelation, well, that presents another bad look.
What Is Hannity Trying To Hide?
Hannity could be trying to conceal a number of embarrassing matters here. The first thought on many people’s minds, of course, is that Cohen — who has operated mostly as a “fixer” and dealmaker for Donald Trump — has recently grown notorious for arranging settlements for mistresses in extramarital affairs. He did so for Trump, going so far as to personally pay Stormy Daniels’ settlement, and Cohen was also recently revealed to have negotiated a $1.6 million settlement with a Playboy model on behalf of for ex-GOP fundraiser Elliot Broidy. Could Cohen have negotiated such a deal for Hannity, who is due to celebrate his silver (25th) anniversary this year with wife Jill Rhodes?
Hannity tried to ward off such a suggestion with the tweet that Cohen never gave him advice “involv[ing] any matter between me and a third-party.” However, every legal dispute — even the dullest civil transaction — involves third parties. That is, unless Hannity was thinking of suing himself, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that even he’s not quite silly enough to do that.
Beyond that sort of juicy speculation, Hannity said on his radio show that “Michael knows real estate,” so his questions “exclusively almost” revolved around that subject. That leaves wiggle room for Hannity to admit to other things later, of course. But for now, it’s worth noting that Cohen has represented Donald Trump not only in a number of international real estate transactions (including the abandoned proposal for a Trump Tower in Moscow), but he also engaged in several cash-only sales for high-value NYC properties that have raised flags with federal investigators as potential vehicles for money laundering. By seeking legal advice from Cohen, Hannity opened himself up to the possibility that Cohen could have engineered a sketchy deal for him. Again, this is just speculation, but Cohen’s reputation precedes him.
What Does This Revelation Mean For Fox News?
As CNN’s Anderson Cooper pointed out on Monday night, Hannity never — not during all of his complaints about the FBI raid on Michael Cohen’s office and hotel room — disclosed to Fox News viewers that “this guy also represents me in some form or fashion.” The Daily Show‘s Trevor Noah also pointed out that Hannity’s lack of a disclosure during his outraged coverage of the raids conducted on Cohen shows that he “wasn’t just mad — he was scared.”
Obviously, this presents a conflict of interest for Hannity, but was Fox News even aware of his relationship with Cohen? Hannity asserted on his show that his talks with Cohen “never rose to any level that I needed to tell anyone that I was asking him questions.” Shepard Smith certainly seemed surprised by the news and told viewers that Hannity’s producers were trying to get ahold of him, so perhaps no one at Fox News knew about what Shepard called “the elephant in the room” that is “now part of the story” of the FBI digging into Michael Cohen (and his possible campaign finance violations, which brings him into the scope of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation).
The whole mess could, arguably, create legal troubles for Fox News. On-air on The Five, host Juan Williams bluntly asked, “Why didn’t [Sean] disclose this earlier?” If there was nothing to hide, why didn’t Hannity say something, rather than continue to fiercely advocate in favor of Michael Cohen to Fox News viewers? Sean Hannity has long since insisted that he’s not a journalist but a talk show host, which is probably why Fox News gives him a long leash to express his opinions on various political candidates and platforms, while news anchors and other hosts clearly are not permitted to do so (or choose not to for ethical reasons).
However, Hannity may have finally exposed Fox News to not only ethical but legal conundrums. Certainly, no network executive wants to be dragged into federal court to explain whether they knew of any shady deal involving Cohen, and Hannity’s involvement with a Trump attorney will bring further criticism that Fox News is providing unfailingly uncritical coverage of matters related to the Trump White House by not disclosing his Cohen connection. It remains to be seen whether the cable news network will take disciplinary action because — let’s face it — Hannity’s operating like a guy who’s got something to hide.
UPDATE: Fox News has issued a statement saying that they were as surprised as anyone else by the announcement, but they stand behind Hannity: “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.”