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Fox News’ Hannity says his ally President Trump won the debate, but the host is an outlier

A watch party for Thursday's presidential debate at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

The debate showdown between President Trump and Joe Biden produced some sharp contrasts Thursday night, but none as drastic as the divide that emerged in the television world’s post-debate analysis — with Fox News delivering one worldview and most of the rest of the TV news ecosystem presenting a starkly different one.

Fox News commentators who immediately followed the debate suggested it was unlikely to sway many undecided voters. But their more moderate remarks were quickly washed away when Trump ally Sean Hannity delivered an hourlong beatdown against Biden, who the Fox star falsely insisted had been caught in “lie after lie after lie.”

Hannity devoted much of the rest of his program to a disquisition on unsubstantiated allegations about Biden’s son Hunter’s overseas contacts as an energy consultant.

It would be hard for the average viewer to believe that Hannity was watching the same debate as the commentators at rival CNN or NBC, the network that sponsored the debate and provided the moderator, correspondent Kristen Welker.

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Panelists at CNN acknowledged that Trump had done better than in last month’s debate, when he spent much of the evening cutting off Biden and moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News.

But the CNN regulars said Trump had also given away some of his obvious weaknesses, such as a lack of compassion. They pointed, in particular, to his suggestion that children separated from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border had been “so well taken care of. They’re in facilities that are so clean.”

“I couldn’t believe that anyone would say that,” political analyst Gloria Borger said. Van Jones agreed that Trump’s comments showed a “shocking” lack of compassion.

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CNN White House correspondent Abby Phillip said the president again demonstrated his callousness when he belittled the performance of “Democrat-led” cities during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting people in those communities were experiencing real pain, not dependent on political affiliation. “The president fell into the same old patterns,” Phillip said.

The panelists generally agreed that the debate would probably not change the trajectory of the race. Although anchor Jake Tapper said Trump at least appeared like a “regular person” in the second and final debate, the assembled CNN analysts agreed that would not be enough to pull him out of his deficit.

“Donald Trump did his best ever, and his best was not good enough,” said Jones, a lawyer and author who served as an advisor to President Obama. “He sounded better. He looked better. But there was nothing there.”

On NBC, the consensus was that Trump had recovered from an atrocious first debate performance. In the words of the network’s top political analyst, Chuck Todd, the president “probably stopped the bleeding.”

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But Todd suggested that Trump was still deflecting on important issues, like his response to the coronavirus, the nation’s uneven healthcare system and the struggling economy. “In some ways, he was trying to make Joe Biden the incumbent,” Todd said.

The NBC host also wondered whether most Americans had much interest in the unproven allegations about Biden’s son. Trump was “speaking the language of Fox prime-time,” Todd said, leaving most people wondering “what the hit is.”

It wasn’t all rosy for Biden among the NBC commentators. Conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt expected Trump to be able to make a substantial political gain out of Biden’s promise to eventually move away from oil and other fossil fuels. Hewitt called that comment “an unforced error,” adding: “I believe that’s the sound bite that’s going to travel.”

Fox’s analysis of the debate shifted sharply in the hour after the showdown, from the more traditional group of panelists, offering a variety of opinions, to the scorched-earth attacks of Trump’s friend and sometime advisor, Hannity.

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“Trump gave his best debate performance, perhaps ever,” longtime Fox personality Brit Hume said. “But I think the former vice president fought him at least to a draw.”

Wallace, who mostly failed to rein in the warring candidates in the first debate, said Biden appeared unfazed by Trump’s attack on his son and succeeded in “throwing the president on defense” by challenging Trump about his own investments in China.

In general, Wallace said, Biden seemed at ease in a debate centered on the coronavirus, the struggling economy and troubled race relations — “questions on which Biden could play offense and put the president on defense.”

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Hannity offered no such sense of balance, or even the mostly civil tone of the candidates, when he took over Fox’s postmortems and immediately turned attack dog for the president.

The host, who has appeared in a Trump video and rally and even hugged the president on stage, claimed that Biden had been untruthful on many issues. “The mob and the media won’t tell you,” he said.

Hannity also drove home a point that Trump repeatedly tried to make. He said the president had “held Joe Biden — 47 years, all talk, no action — accountable.” While most analysts were congratulating Welker after the debate, Hannity found fault there too, saying the moderator had cut Trump off “30 times” and Biden only twice. (He did not mention that Trump more frequently ignored the time parameters that Welker laid out.)

Some ‘facts’ just aren’t so. That much was certain, especially for President Trump, as he and former Vice President Joe Biden met Thursday for a final debate.

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A recent poll reinforced the enormous importance of the Fox News audience to the president. Fully 98% of viewers who call the right-leaning outlet their favorite TV news source give Trump a favorable rating as president.

Well over 90% of those who trust the station also approved of the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his response to this summer’s protests over racial justice, according to the poll by the Public Religion Research Institute.

Hannity’s prosecutorial approach would be no surprise to Fox’s regular audience.

It followed neatly, from a pre-debate hour led by the cable channel’s Tucker Carlson, who focused intently on the Biden family, accusing Biden of ethical failures related to his son.

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A federal judge has recently opined, based partly on statements by Fox’s lawyers, that Carlson’s work should not be misconstrued as “ ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘non-literal commentary.’ ”

Fox’s on-air programming and its website have been awash for days with stories about the “scandal,” following the lead of Trump, who has demanded that the press and voters focus on the younger Biden and an unsubstantiated New York Post story that purported to disclose damaging emails that Trump’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, said came from Hunter Biden’s laptop computer. Fox’s website featured no fewer than a dozen stories about the issue.

A look at where President Trump and Joe Biden stand on key issues in the 2020 election, including healthcare, immigration, police reform and climate.

The vast majority of news outlets have found the provenance of the purported emails suspicious and the claims of Biden influence peddling entirely unproven. But Fox asserted that those news judgments were themselves another scandal; Carlson called it “collusion,” and a story on the outlet’s website insisted Welker was obligated to raise the issue.

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CNN, in contrast, spent the minutes running up to the debate suggesting that Trump would be forced to confront the real issues facing the nation: his failed response to COVID-19, the downturn of the economy and the separation of immigrant children from their families.

Borger said the attempt to turn the focus to Biden would be difficult for Trump: “People don’t trust him. They don’t believe him. They don’t think he is honest.” Jones said Trump was trying to “criminalize” Biden as he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016 — “doubling down and tripling down on these themes that nobody else but him cares about.” Tapper called Trump’s attacks on the Biden family “babble.”

NBC’s pre-debate analysis also put the onus on the president. “He’s trailing, he is behind,” Todd said. “He needs to change the trajectory of this race.”

Average Americans may have been relieved just to see the two candidates manage to avoid shouting and interrupting for most of their encounter.

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“The first debate was sort of like whitewater rafting, blindfolded,” said Dana Perino, former White House spokeswoman for George W. Bush and now a Fox News host. “This one was more like being on the lazy river and not even spilling my drink.”


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