Reprinted with permission from MediaMatters.
Several key players in Fox News’ pro-Trump effort to undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation are struggling to explain to their audiences why, contrary to their predictions, the federal judge in former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s case did not throw out his guilty plea and lay the Mueller probe to waste.
Instead, Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December 2017, asked Judge Emmet Sullivan during a Tuesday hearing to postpone his sentencing to give him an opportunity to provide aid to the Mueller probe after the judge expressed outrage at his crimes and suggested he had not done enough to mitigate them.
The result was a disaster for Flynn’s right-wing media supporters, who have been speculating since February that Sullivan might agree with their conspiracy theory that Flynn had been unfairly or even illegally targeted and vacate his plea. Most recently, they have pointed to the suggestion by Flynn’s lawyers that the FBI had duped him into lying and Sullivan’s subsequent request for documents related to the then-national security advisor’s interactions with the bureau.
Jeanine Pirro, a key player in the pro-Trump media ecosystem’s anti-Mueller effort, used the opening monologue of her Saturday night Fox News program to declare that victory was at hand. Praising Sullivan as “a jurist unafraid of the swamp, a judge who has a track record of calling out prosecutorial misconduct, a man who does not tolerate injustice or abuse of power,” she argued that he “can throw out this guilty plea if he concludes the FBI intentionally interfered with their target Flynn’s constitutional right to counsel.” If that were to happen, she said later in the program, “the house of cards of Robert Mueller falls.”
Pirro wasn’t alone in jumping to these conclusions on Fox. Over the past week, anti-Mueller luminaries like Sean Hannity and Fox contributor Sara Carter and Fox legal analyst Gregg Jarrett have been praising Sullivan and suggesting that he might vacate Flynn’s plea. Lou Dobbs’ audience heard former Justice Department official Sidney Powell predict, “Judge Sullivan is going to throw the entire prosecution of Gen. Flynn out for egregious prosecutorial misconduct.”
None of that happened. In fact, at the hearing, Sullivan got Flynn and his lawyer to state on the record that he had knowingly lied to the FBI and that they did not believe his rights had been violated.
And so on Tuesday night, Fox’s propagandists tried to explain what had gone wrong, in their typical, comically disingenuous way.
On Hannity, the play was to spin up a new conspiracy theory. Sitting in for the eponymous host, Pirro said Sullivan “took an incredible left turn, right turn, and U-turn” in criticizing Flynn and asked Jarrett, “Where is this judge coming from?” Jarrett’s theory was that Sullivan “all but begged Flynn to withdraw his plea. And when Flynn refused to do so, there was this Jekyll Hyde transformation of Judge Emmet Sullivan and he began to lash out at Flynn.” Criminal defense attorney David Schoen agreed, saying that after Flynn refused to withdraw the plea, “Judge Sullivan was left with no place to go in a sense.”
This makes no sense.
If Sullivan actually believed the incredible spin Flynn’s allies had been putting out about the investigation, he had a very obvious option: He could have accepted the recommendation of Mueller’s team to give Flynn probation. Instead, he threatened Flynn with jail and pointedly asked if he wanted to delay the sentencing, leading to the defendant seizing that offer. The logical conclusion is that Sullivan, having examined the case in detail, believes Flynn committed serious crimes and that there was no misconduct. But Pirro and her ilk simply can’t admit that, they’ve been defending Flynn for too long.
Lou Dobbs seized on a simpler solution: Just bash the judge. On his program last night, he repeatedly argued that Sullivan’s actions indicate that he has joined “the Mueller witch-hunt.” This cuts against the work the other anti-Mueller partisans have been doing over the months to build up Sullivan’s independence and credibility in order to suggest that he would take their side on Flynn. But for Dobbs, Trump and Flynn are heroes, and if Sullivan is against them, he’s the villain.
And Fox & Friends went with the simplest strategy of all, virtually ignoring the hearing altogether. Over the three-hour Wednesday broadcast, less than five minutes were devoted to Flynn’s case.
Header image by Sarah Wasko / Media Matters