On Nov. 30, 2020, Sean Hannity hosted Sidney Powell on his prime time Fox News program. As she had in many other interviews around that time — on Fox and elsewhere in right-wing media — Ms. Powell, a former federal prosecutor, spun wild conspiracy theories about what she said was “corruption all across the country, in countless districts” in a plot to steal re-election from the president, Donald J. Trump.
At the center of this imagined plot were machines from Dominion Voting Systems, which Ms. Powell claimed ran an algorithm that switched votes for Mr. Trump to votes for Joseph R. Biden Jr. Dominion machines, she insisted, were being used “to trash large batches of votes.”
Mr. Hannity interrupted her with a gentle question that had been circulating among election deniers, despite a lack of supporting proof: Why were Democrats silencing whistle blowers who could prove this fraud?
Did Mr. Hannity believe any of this?
“I did not believe it for one second.”
That was the answer Mr. Hannity gave, under oath, in a deposition in Dominion’s $1.6 billion defamation lawsuit against Fox News, according to information disclosed in a court hearing on Wednesday. The hearing was called to address several issues that need to be resolved before the case heads for a jury trial, which the judge has scheduled to begin in April.
Mr. Hannity’s disclosure — and others that emerged from court on Wednesday about what Fox News executives and hosts really believed as their network became one of the loudest megaphones for lies about the 2020 election — is among the strongest evidence yet to emerge publicly that some Fox employees knew that what they were broadcasting was false.
More on Fox News
- Defamation Case: Some of the biggest names at Fox News are being questioned in the $1.6 billion lawsuit filed by Dominion Voting Systems against the network. The suit could be one of the most consequential First Amendment cases in a generation.
- Exploring a Merger: Fox and News Corp, the two sides of Rupert Murdoch’s media business, are weighing a proposal that could put Fox News, The Wall Street Journal and the Fox broadcasting network under the same corporate umbrella.
- ‘American Nationalist’: Tucker Carlson stoked white fear to conquer cable news. In the process, the TV host transformed Fox News and became former President Donald J. Trump’s heir.
- Empire of Influence: A Times investigation looked at how the Murdochs, the family behind a global media empire that includes Fox News, have destabilized democracy on three continents.
The high legal standard of proof in defamation cases makes it difficult for a company like Dominion to prevail against a media organization like Fox News. Dominion has to persuade a jury that people at Fox were, in effect, saying one thing in private while telling their audience exactly the opposite. And that requires showing a jury convincing evidence that speaks to the state of mind of those who were making the decisions at the network.
In the Delaware Superior Court on Wednesday, Dominion’s lawyers argued that they had obtained ample evidence to make that case.
One lawyer for Dominion said that “not a single Fox witness” so far had produced anything supporting the various false claims about the company that were uttered repeatedly on the network. And in some cases, other high-profile hosts and senior executives echoed Mr. Hannity’s doubts about what Mr. Trump and his allies like Ms. Powell were saying, according to the Dominion lawyer, Stephen Shackelford.
This included Meade Cooper, who oversees prime-time programming for Fox News, and the prime-time star Tucker Carlson, Mr. Shackelford said.
“Many of the highest-ranking Fox people have admitted under oath that they never believed the Dominion lies,” he said, naming both Ms. Cooper and Mr. Carlson.
Mr. Shackelford described how Mr. Carlson had “tried to squirm out of it at his deposition” when asked about what he really believed.
Mr. Shackelford started to elaborate about what Mr. Carlson had said privately, telling the judge about the existence of text messages the host had sent in November and December of 2020. But before Mr. Shackelford could say any more, the judge, Eric M. Davis, cut him off, leaving the specific contents of those texts unknown.
A spokeswoman for Fox News had no immediate comment.
Another previously unknown detail emerged on Wednesday about what was going on inside the Fox universe in those frantic weeks after the election. A second lawyer representing Dominion, Justin Nelson, told Judge Davis about evidence obtained by Dominion showing that an employee of the Fox Corporation, the parent company of Fox News, had tried to intervene with the White House to stop Ms. Powell. According to Mr. Nelson, that employee called the fraud claims “outlandish” and pressed Mr. Trump’s staff to get rid of Ms. Powell, who was advising the president on filing legal challenges to the results.
Mr. Nelson said that evidence cuts straight to the heart of whether the Fox Corporation, which is controlled by Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch, is also liable for defamation. Judge Davis ruled in June that Dominion could sue the larger, highly profitable parent company of Fox News, which includes the Fox network on basic television and a lucrative sports broadcasting division.
A spokesman for Fox Corporation had no immediate comment.
Over the last several months, Dominion has been combing through mountains of private email and text messages from people at every level of Fox News and the Fox Corporation — hosts like Mr. Hannity, senior executives and midlevel producers. A lawyer for Fox, Dan K. Webb, said on Wednesday that the company had produced more than 52,000 documents for Dominion, with more to come.
During the hearing, the judge was asked to rule on several issues. One was whether a second voting company that is suing Fox for defamation, Smartmatic, could be given access to the documents Dominion had obtained for its case. Judge Davis ruled in Fox’s favor, denying Smartmatic’s motion.
A second issue was whether certain evidence Dominion has used against Fox in its court filings — including emails among Fox employees and a page from a deposition in which someone from Fox describes the journalistic processes of one of the network’s programs — should be made public.
Throughout the case, Fox has asked the court to keep almost everything in the case pertaining to its inner workings under seal. A third lawyer for Dominion, Davida Brook, argued on Wednesday that the public had a fundamental right to see what it had filed with the court in the interest of fostering the openness that a democracy requires.
Judge Davis disagreed, ruling that the evidence would stay under seal. But he admonished the lawyers that neither party in the case should be overly aggressive in trying to keep facts in the case confidential.
If, for instance, someone says something “not bright” — and therefore embarrassing — that wouldn’t be enough to keep that information under seal, Judge Davis said.
“That’s too bad,” he said.