There is no friendlier territory on television for Trump supporters than Sean Hannity’s nightly hour on Fox News, where President Trump is forever the victim of a witch hunt and the liberal media is perennially bent on his destruction.
That safe-space bubble popped — in dramatic, headline-making fashion — on Wednesday night, when Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former New York mayor and current member of Mr. Trump’s legal team, casually confirmed to the startled host that the president had personally repaid his lawyer the money he had laid out to make his problem with a pornographic actress go away.
“Oh,” Mr. Hannity replied, his usual bombast briefly escaping him. “I didn’t know — he did?”
It was an off-message moment from the ultimate on-message show — and just the latest in a string of agita-inducing moments for Mr. Trump that have played out, improbably, on his favorite television network.
Mr. Giuliani’s admission stunned Mr. Trump’s closest advisers, many of whom — including the press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders — learned about Mr. Trump’s payment while watching “Hannity.” Even so, the candor may have been by design: Mr. Giuliani said the president’s involvement showed that the payment had not violated campaign finance laws.
It was harder to locate the strategy behind Mr. Trump’s swerving, stream-of-consciousness telephone interview last week on “Fox & Friends.” On live TV, the president seemed to stumble into acknowledging, for the first time, that he knew about his personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, funneling $130,000 in hush money to an adult film actress who had claimed to have had an affair with the future president.
“He represents me, like with this crazy Stormy Daniels deal,” Mr. Trump said, as the show’s hosts listened politely.
The president went on to say that Mr. Cohen does “a tiny, tiny little fraction” of his legal work — prompting prosecutors to file a fresh brief saying that the comment had undermined the president’s legal argument that documents seized from Mr. Cohen in a raid by prosecutors, were protected by attorney-client privilege.
On Thursday, “Fox & Friends” played host to another awkward and possibly significant exchange. Mr. Giuliani, back on the network less than 12 hours after his appearance on “Hannity” aired, mused that Mr. Cohen’s efforts to quiet Ms. Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, had helped Mr. Trump’s presidential bid.
“Imagine if that came out on Oct. 15, 2016, in the middle of the, you know, last debate with Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Giuliani said.
Fair point — but problematic for Mr. Trump, whose legal team would be better off avoiding any suggestion that he had violated federal campaign finance laws that require the disclosure of spending meant to influence the electorate.
Michael Avenatti, the voluble lawyer representing Ms. Clifford, responded on Twitter by thanking “Fox & Friends” for “helping our case week in and week out.”
“You are truly THE BEST,” Mr. Avenatti wrote. “Where can we send the gift basket?”
Perhaps Mr. Trump and his defenders feel more relaxed when chatting with Fox News’s stable of pundits, whose questions tend to be gentle. Those who know Mr. Trump well said that the president’s meandering call to “Fox & Friends” resembled the way he talks in private.
Also, Mr. Trump and some of his closest allies choose to appear only on Fox News — meaning that any gaffes are bound to appear there, rather than on rival networks.
Still, other moments have scrambled the usual Fox News formula.
When the correspondent Ed Henry sat down in April with Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Mr. Pruitt was hoping for the interview to clear up a cloud of ethics problems hanging over his tenure. Instead, Mr. Henry pelted him with questions that Mr. Pruitt visibly struggled to answer.
Mr. Henry, though, belongs to the reporting side of Fox News, rather than its conservative commentariat. And the network’s pundits have been less aggressive in their questioning when interviews go south.
On Wednesday night, Mr. Hannity did not press Mr. Giuliani for details about the president’s reimbursing of Mr. Cohen, and the host even offered the former mayor a mulligan.
“But do you know the president didn’t know about this?” Mr. Hannity asked, seeming to prompt Mr. Giuliani to correct his earlier statement.
“He didn’t know about the specifics of it as far as I know,” Mr. Giuliani said. “But he did know about the general arrangement that Michael would take care of things like this.”
Later, Laura Ingraham, who follows Mr. Hannity at 10 p.m., seemed taken aback at what had transpired in the previous hour.
“God, if you go on ‘Hannity’ you better think it through, as the attorney for the president,” she said, her eyes wide in disbelief.
“I love Rudy,” she added, “but they better have an explanation for that. That’s a problem.”