As word came in on Friday that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had pleaded guilty to perjury for lying to the FBI, critics of Fox News were eager to see how the network would try to spin the latest development in the special counsel investigation of Donald Trump. Lots of Twitter users noted that while the Flynn news was percolating, Fox aired a segment on the acquittal in the Kate Steinle case, and for a time had an item on Hillary Clinton and Loretta Lynch as the lead story on their website. But the vast majority of Fox’s live coverage Friday was, in fact, devoted to Flynn’s plea, albeit with some soft slanting.
Wall Street Journal editorial board member Mary Kissel told Melissa Francis, the host of Fox’s Happening Now, that Flynn’s dishonesty and prior behavior—his dining with Vladimir Putin, for instance—reflects poorly on the Trump administration even if the special counsel investigation doesn’t ultimately corroborate claims of collusion between the administration and Russia.
But Kissel also raised questions about the leaks surrounding Flynn’s conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and the justification for monitoring his communications in the first place — issues that have also been raised by Trump and Republicans critical of the Russia investigation.
“My question is is the FBI investigating what we found out in the first place, which was how Michael Flynn’s name was leaked it to the press, which is the only crime, other than this perjury, that we know about so far,” she said. “ Everything else is a speculation. But, personally, I would like to know how the FBI got the warrant to listen in on that conversation that Michael Flynn had with the Russian ambassador, and who leaked that name to the press? Because that is a crime.”
In an interview not long after this, conservative talk radio host Tammy Bruce predicted that the media would seize on the news while Trump would ultimately be unaffected. “They want to keep that narrative going as long as they can,” she said. “So there is still gossip and speculation. The fact of the matter is—I will set this out now—that this is not going to touch the president at all.”
In an interview with George Mason Law School’s Jamil Jaffer, though, Francis highlighted the implications of reporting from ABC’s Brian Ross that Flynn is prepared to testify that Trump instructed him to contact Russia “as a candidate”:
Francis: [H]e is going to say that a senior member of the Trump administration asked him to reach out to a number of countries on their behalf, including Russia. And this was before they took office. Now, if you match that with Brian Ross’s reporting, he may be saying that that senior member was in fact President Trump. That would be a pretty big deal, no?
Jaffer: Well, I mean, look, the question of what an elected administration can and cannot do, what they should and shouldn’t do before January 20th is a hard question. They’re going to be in office on the 20th — should they be reaching out to foreign countries and talking to their allies about what their policies are going to be? That is a hard question. Obviously, there’s an administration in place—probably not a great idea as a policy matter. As a legal matter— unclear, right?
Francis: Well, although If you really read into what Brian Ross is a saying, if he’s saying “candidate”, that’s not President-Elect, so that doesn’t imply between the election and January. I mean, is he saying that he told him to reach out before he was elected? That would go right to the question of collusion and everything else.
Jaffer: Exactly right. And so the charges, though, relate to what happen after the election, right? So the charges are in that period between the election and January 20th. The question of what happened before the election, you’re exactly right, is interesting. We don’t know. All that we have have right now is the Brian Ross reporting.
Later on Outnumbered, Bill Hemmer argued that communications with Russia would have been consistent with transition precedent.
Hemmer: Every time we have a transition of power in the United States, when one administration is replacing the other, we can see the pattern that they have. They want to have better relations with Russia. Time and again, I don’t think that the Trump team is any different. And I know for a fact that General Flynn, went to the West Wing as national security adviser and part of his strategy was to build a better relationship with Moscow so you peel Moscow away from its relationship with Beijing. And that was a strategy that was stated, on record, in the West Wing last January. … And part of his strategy was to build a better relationship with Moscow. And that was his strategy. That was it stated on record in the west wing last January.
Harris Faulkner: So why did he lie about those meetings, then?
Hemmer: Well… you’re going to have to ask him.
As relatively mild as their coverage was, Fox’s primetime hosts can be expected to amplify these preliminary talking points: the Flynn leak has been underinvestigated, conversations with Russians would have been expected for an incoming administration and haven’t been clearly tied to collusion, and Flynn’s dishonesty —the rationale Trump gave for his firing earlier this year—is the real issue at hand.