Cell phone showdown. MSNBC takes on Fox News' Sean Hannity over obstruction of justice talk

Critics of Fox News commentator Sean Hannity have seized on statements he made during his nationally broadcast show to claim Hannity is urging targets of the Russia special counsel investigation to destroy their phones and purge their emails to avoid prosecution.

But those claims are serving up only part of the story.

The central issue is whether Hannity was joking or serious when he advised that subjects of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe should destroy evidence — which Hannity claimed Hillary Clinton did during the investigation into her use of a private email server — to see if they receive similar treatment as Clinton under the law.

Hannity's remarks have become something of an ink blot test: Some interpreted them as a sarcastic riff on double standards (Hannity's position), while others found Hannity’s true intent ambiguous. Still others, like one MSNBC host, took Hannity’s words as a literal signal — made in front of millions of television viewers — to Mueller probe subjects to destroy evidence sought by Mueller.

"Trump confidant Sean Hannity now advocating obstruction of Mueller probe," read the lower-third onscreen text — known as a chyron — during MSNBC’s The Beat with Ari Melber.

Melber reinforced this point, saying, "Sean Hannity is now literally telling potential witnesses and subjects in the Mueller probe to destroy the evidence and hammer their phones into pieces."

We saw plenty of other examples of similar takes: "Sean Hannity is publicly instructing people to obstruct justice," and "Sean Hannity suggested that the witnesses in the Mueller probe, which he may be a subject, target or witness in, destroy their cell phones, before handing them to investigators" are just two of the more popular posts we saw shared on social media.

We're not rating a statement on our Truth-O-Meter because this seems to be a case of differing interpretation. But we thought it was worth laying out Hannity's words and MSNBC's coverage side by side to see the full context.

What Hannity said

During his June 6 broadcast, Hannity appeared clearly angered over reports that Mueller’s team had asked witnesses in the Russia investigation for access to private messages on WhatsApp, Signal and other encryption-capable apps.

Hannity, an avowed Trump supporter and vocal critic of the Mueller probe, launched into a lengthy diatribe about the investigation’s latest twist:

HANNITY: "This is interesting—they are demanding that witnesses turn in their phones so team Mueller and, of course, his pit bull Andrew Weissmann and Jeannie Rhee, who worked for Clinton, get to review all of their electronic communications. He wants the phones turned over even texts that are on what are called encrypted apps like WhatsApp or Signal or one of these things.

"Maybe Mueller's witnesses, I don't know. If I advise them to follow Hillary Clinton's lead, delete all your emails and then acid-wash the emails and hard drives on the new phones, then take your phones and bash them with a hammer into little itsy-bitsy pieces, use BleachBit, remove the SIM cards, and then take the pieces and hand it over to Robert Mueller and say, ‘Hillary Rodham Clinton, this is equal justice under the law,' how do you think that would work out for everybody who Mueller is demanding their phones of tonight?

"I'm certain the result would not be the same as Hillary's."

During the next segment during a discussion with Fox News contributor Sara Carter and Fox News political analyst Greg Jarrett, Hannity said he was kidding with respect to the "advice" he’d give Mueller probe witnesses.

"Mueller wants everyone's cell phones," Hannity said. "My advice to them, not really, kidding, bad advice, would be: follow Hillary's lead."

Critics swiftly rebuked Hannity’s first comments. Hannity pushed back the following day, saying his comments had been "obviously sarcastic."

"I made what are obviously sarcastic remarks highlighting a clear double standard as it relates to our justice system," Hannity said during his June 7 broadcast. "Believe it or not, the insane left-wing media in this country, headline after headline, they picked up those comments — they're so dumb and gullible — and had a full-on, the only thing I can describe as, a fake news freak-out."

How Hannity’s comments were treated

So did MSNBC and others characterize Hannity fairly?

During his broadcast, Melber, an attorney, laid out what lawyers might consider a totality-of-circumstances argument. By connecting several pieces of circumstantial evidence, Melber built a frame around the Fox anchor’s words that encouraged viewers to see them as literal and of potential legal significance. Melber noted:

"One, Donald Trump is under investigation for obstruction of justice;

"Two, several of Trump's former aides have pled guilty or been charged with crimes related to obstruction, like lying to the feds;

"Three, the man who literally ran Trump's campaign (Paul Manafort) was accused this week of witness tampering, one of the more serious ways to obstruct any probe;

"Four, Bob Mueller is finding new leads in his probe by looking through witnesses’ phones and reading through their once-encrypted messages;

"Five, one of the most powerful people in Trump's orbit is Sean Hannity, conservative activists and TV host, who reportedly speaks to Trump daily and is one of the only other clients of Trump's embattled lawyer Michael Cohen."

Melber then asked viewers to "take that all in" before delivering the coup de grace: "Sean Hannity is now literally telling potential witnesses and subjects in the Mueller probe to destroy the evidence and hammer their phones into pieces."

Melber showed a graphic of a Washington Post story that contained Hannity’s quote where he said he was kidding.

Melber’s guest Nick Akerman, a Watergate prosecutor and MSNBC contributor, said Hannity’s remarks harked back to his days prosecuting organized crime figures.

"They would come on hard, they would tell people to destroy the evidence, to get rid of the evidence, and then they just say, ‘Oh, I’m just kidding,’" Akerman said. "It was kind of like a wink and a nod, but what they want you to do was destroy the evidence."

Melber did acknowledge that "Hannity's defenders may call that sarcasm or poetic license," before quickly adding, "but words are words."

MSNBC did not return our request seeking additional clarification.

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