FLASHBACK: When right-wing pundits thought political hush money payments were a crime
"The facts are that he broke campaign finance laws and that he lied to cover it up," Fox News' Sean Hannity said.
Hannity was not talking about former President Donald Trump, who was indicted last week for funneling $130,000 to his alleged mistress, Stormy Daniels. Prosecutors in Manhattan are expected to allege that Trump violated campaign finance laws by not reporting the payment as a campaign contribution and then falsified business records as part of a coverup. The precise charges will remain under seal until Trump is formally arraigned on Tuesday.
The quote from Hannity, from June 3, 2011, refers to former presidential candidate and former senator John Edwards (D-NC), who was indicted that day on charges similar to those Trump now faces. Edwards was charged with violating campaign finance law by "accept[ing] more than $900,000 in an effort to conceal from the public facts that he believed would harm his candidacy" and then hiding the contributions from the FEC. The money funded payoffs to Rielle Hunter, his mistress, to cover up his affair during his presidential campaign in 2007 and 2008. According to the indictment, Edwards conspired with his staff to falsify the purpose of the payments, claiming the funds were used for "chairs" and an "antique table."
From the outset of the Edwards investigation to the indictment and throughout the trial, Hannity expressed no objection to Edwards being prosecuted for this conduct. On the contrary, Hannity regularly endorsed the prosecutors' theory that money spent to cover up an affair during a campaign should be considered an illegal campaign contribution.
In February 2011, Hannity conducted a sympathetic interview with former Edwards aide Andrew Young, who was the prosecution's star witness in the case. Young had initially claimed paternity of Hunter's child, even though Edwards was the actual father. In March 2011, Hannity said that an indictment could "come any day now" and promoted phone conversations recorded by Young as "very incriminating." The recordings, according to Hannity, proved "he knew this money was being raised in spite of claims to the contrary; if in fact that's true, that's in violation of law."
Hannity also regularly featured guests arguing that Edwards had committed a serious crime. Hannity's June 3, 2011 program featured former prosecutor Kelly Saindon, who had this to say about Edwards' conduct:
Yes, he's going to go to jail and he should be indicted. He knew what he was doing was wrong. He was diverting campaign money. He was complicit in making sure that he hid his affair. He lied to us about it and he is going to end up serving jail time for this. Whether or not he knew it was wrong and against the law, which I believe he did know it was against the law, he is going to jail because you are charged with knowing the laws that apply to you. That applied and he broke the law.
On May 31, 2012, the jury in the Edwards case deadlocked on most charges, and the judge declared a mistrial. In response, Hannity continued to argue that Edwards was guilty because he was using money in excess of the campaign limits to cover up an affair during the campaign. "[I]f we look at this very closely, a campaign contribution, anything of value… for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election," Hannity said, "So weren't they trying to basically… circumvent the law?"
But when news broke that Trump was indicted for paying $130,000 in hush money in the closing days of a campaign and then falsifying business records to cover his tracks, Hannity had a much different response. Here is an excerpt from Hannity's opening monologue last Thursday, after news of the Trump indictment first broke:
Manhattan D.A., Alvin Bragg, he has literally thrown the rule of law to the wind in exchange for a cheap act of petty political vengeance and he has brought the criminalization of political differences now to an entire new level. This is repulsive. It's a disgusting political hit job, the likes of which we have never seen in this country. It's never happened before.
Now, Pandora's box has now officially been open. We have a new era of political revenge and a weaponized justice system is now upon all of us…This is not a strong case by any stretch of the imagination and frankly, no fair, honest or honorable DA would ever bring these charges
Hannity isn't the only right-wing media personality to have diametrically opposed reactions to Edwards' and Trump's indictments.
Now v. Then: Fox News and the Wall Street Journal
Numerous right-wing pundits who blasted Trump's indictment were happy to see Edwards criminally charged for similar conduct. Former Fox News host Megyn Kelly tweeted that Manhattan DA Alvin Bragg, who is leading the prosecution of Trump, should be "ashamed of himself."
But in numerous appearances on the O'Reilly Factor during the Edwards' investigation and trial, Kelly did not suggest any impropriety by prosecutors. In an April 26, 2012 appearance, while the trial was ongoing, Kelly said the case was "going pretty well for the prosecution" because "it doesn't seem like a lot of the facts are in dispute."
O'Reilly, in reaction to the Trump indictment, called it "bad for the country" and a "political play." He also expressed confidence that Trump's lawyer "should be able to shred the case." But at the conclusion of the Edwards trial, during the deliberations, O'Reilly declared the evidence against Edwards was "pretty damning." Throughout the prosecution, O'Reilly repeatedly declared that Edwards was "guilty."
On Twitter, former Fox News contributor Kimberly Guilfoyle described the charges against Trump as a "sham indictment" because there was "no crime committed." But Guilfoyle was an enthusiastic supporter of the prosecution of Edwards. "I think there is a strong case against him," she said in October 2011. "You have people who also going to testify against him. So, I think he is in trouble."
Today, the Wall Street Journal editorial page is full of columns trashing the decision to charge Trump. A typical editorial last month decried Bragg's "bad judgment" and accused him of indicting Trump "based on the weakest of charges." The paper does not appear to have run any column defending Bragg's indictment. The paper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, took a different approach with the charges against John Edwards. It ran multiple columns emphasizing the righteousness of the charges against Edwards.
Steve Simpson, for example, wrote the following in June 2011:
If the candidates themselves can define what a contribution is, the laws would be pointless… So it's a bit strange to… claim that Mr. Edwards should have been able to accept nearly a million dollars to cover up an affair that clearly would have affected his presidential campaign.