Roundabout 10 months ago, Fox News host Tucker Carlson was quite the crusader for privacy rights. Particularly Michael Flynn’s privacy rights. “The most basic civil liberty of all is, as you often say, is privacy,” said Carlson on his eponymous show in February, as he argued with a congressman. “And you need that. So, if you do not have any privacy from the U.S. government spying on you, like, things fall apart.”
The backdrop for Carlson’s outrage was the firing of Flynn, who served a brief tenure as President Trump’s national security adviser. As it turned out, Flynn had lied to his colleagues in the administration about a December 2016 conversation he’d conducted with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. U.S. intelligence officials uncovered the Flynn-Kislyak chat in their surveillance activities. The high-ranking official’s misdeeds leaked to the media.
And that was the story, suggested Carlson. “General Michael Flynn’s downfall was swift, efficient and clean, perhaps too clean,” he said. “In just weeks, a major critic of the foreign policy establishment was politically obliterated thanks in part to U.S. intelligence monitoring his private conversation.”
The host’s very strong and patriotic concerns about leaks continued for months. Here, he said that leaks amount to an “utter perversion” of American democracy. Here, he touted a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee report slamming leaks.”I’m not against all leaks. I’ve benefited from a lot of them. I think the public has a right to know more than it does,” said Carlson in a moment of lucidity. Here, he ripped leaks intended to undermine Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
December has afforded the always-consistent Carlson an opportunity to continue his patriotic fight for the privacy rights of embattled U.S. citizens. On Dec. 2, New York Times reporters Michael S. Schmidt, Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman reported that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had removed a top FBI agent — Peter Strzok — from the Russia investigation after the Justice Department’s inspector general probed the employee’s anti-Trump text messages.
On Dec. 6, Fox News reported that there were 10,000 texts between Strzok and colleague Lisa Page in the batch.
Last week, reporters got their social-media-twitching fingers on the text messages, though a Justice Department official said that some of that activity wasn’t authorized by the department. Various officials were insulted in the texts, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former attorney general Eric Holder, though Trump got significant thumbs-down commentary, including “idiot” and “loathsome human.”
Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare opined, “The release of private correspondence between two Justice Department employees whose correspondence is the subject of an active inspector general investigation is not just wrong. It is cruel.”
Way to tee up the issue for Carlson, Mr. Wittes. Surely the guy who stood up for the privacy rights of a highly visible national security adviser would do the same for unheralded FBI types. A look at the Fox News host’s statements, however, shows a great privacy gap: Whereas Flynn’s communications were sacred, those of Strzok and Page, well, those weren’t quite as dear. Sample this argument from Carlson:
“Peter Strzok exonerated Hillary Clinton in the middle of a presidential campaign. But then he kept going. Strzok went on to sign the document, the official document that opened an investigation into Russian meddling in an election,” he riffed on Dec. 4, after the news broke.
One night later, Carlson feasted on the messages. “Last summer Strzok was abruptly pulled off Robert Mueller’s team of investigators. It just didn’t become public for months. But it happened,” said Carlson. “The FBI won’t explain why it happened even when asked directly by the Congress. Now we know it happened because Strzok was sending highly political texts … messages praising Hillary Clinton and denigrating Donald Trump.”
And given Carlson’s absolute horror over governmental privacy encroachments, there’s simply no way that he would stoop to republishing text messages that other, bottom-feeding media outlets pushed into the public realm. Right? On Dec. 13, he said, “Yesterday Fox News obtained copies of the famous text messages that Strzok sent.” Then this:
In one exchange, from August of 2016, Page told Strzok, quote, “Maybe you are meant to stay where you are,” the FBI, “because you are meant to protect the country from that menace.” What menace would that be? Well, just days before, Strzok signed off on the start of the FBI’s investigation [into] ties between Russia and Donald Trump. Later that month, Strzok texted this to Page: Quote, “I want to believe the path you throw out consideration in Andy’s office that there is no way Trump gets elected, but I am afraid we can’t take that risk.” It’s like an insurance policy in the likely event you die before you are 40.
Also on that program, Carlson appeared to approve of the way that Strzok’s texts reached the public. “[It] took a leak to get Peter Strzok’s text messages, which we now have,” he said. There’s more, too: Guest and famous lawyer Alan Dershowitz bashed the government for not coughing up information. “I think transparency trumps privacy when you’re a government official,” said Dershowitz on the Dec. 14 edition of “Tucker Carlson Tonight.”
Carlson responded, “That is right.” Except when you’re Michael Flynn, of course. Months after Carlson painted Flynn as a victim, the fired official painted himself as something quite different: In November, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak. Weeks after his departure from the White House, he filed papers indicating that he’d worked for Turkish interests during the presidential campaign. A whistleblower has alleged that Flynn mixed public and private business in other ways as well.
Maybe Carlson should revisit his pleas to respect Flynn’s privacy.
Deplore leaks when they embarrass your ideological brethren; embrace leaks when they embarrass your ideological adversaries. That’s what is happening at Fox News. And it’s happening at a critical time, when opinion-mongers like Carlson, host Sean Hannity and the morning program “Fox & Friends” are all seeking to discredit the Mueller probe. As CNN’s Brian Stelter wrote, these attacks feed into a cycle that could facilitate a White House dismissal of Mueller, a move that could have disastrous consequences for U.S. democracy.
While Hannity is clearly the most vocal and dedicated of the Mueller doubters, Carlson is perhaps the most clever. Look at the utter determination with which he stuck up for Flynn’s privacy back in February:
Now observe the way he looks past privacy matters in the Strzok saga in a Dec. 4 interview with Joe DiGenova, a former U.S. attorney for D.C.:
Worry not, Tucker Carlson. Your viewers care not that you contradict yourself. They’ll keep tuning in.