For most of the past seven years, Chelsea Manning has been a tailor-made villain for the conservative media. Her disclosure of secret diplomatic and military documents to WikiLeaks allowed folks such as Sean Hannity to do two of their favorite things: remind everyone of how ferociously they support the military and to blame President Obama for something at or beyond the limits of his control.
On his Fox News show in 2010, Hannity declared that Manning “needs to be held accountable” for putting “our brave men and women in the military overseas in danger,” and he wondered: “Why can't Obama do something about the WikiLeaks?”
Now, though, things are more complicated. Obama commuted Manning's 35-year sentence Tuesday, which in an orderly universe would have triggered a fresh round of outrage at the president, WikiLeaks and the former Army private, who is transgender and served as Bradley Manning. To be sure, there has been some outrage on the right.
But the twist is that many in the conservative media have been singing a different tune about WikiLeaks ever since the site published hacked emails that reflected poorly on Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party — and especially since WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Hannity in an interview this month that Russia did not supply the emails, bolstering President-elect Donald Trump's assertion that he did not receive any significant help from the Kremlin during the election.
Hannity, for one, already has had to come up with an explanation for his flip-flop on WikiLeaks.
“I had people abusing me,” Hannity told viewers in December, “because I changed my position on Julian Assange in this way: I said he's done America a favor. He's exposed that we have no cybersecurity. That gives us a chance to fix it. And he also exposed how corrupt government is.”
Very clever. Hannity didn't exactly reverse his view that WikiLeaks' disclosures are bad; he just claimed to have discovered an upside in the form of a cybersecurity wake-up call.
Still, can he really go back to a hard line against Manning after cozying up to Assange a few weeks ago? Apparently not. Hannity barely mentioned Manning's commutation on his program Tuesday night. When he did, it was in neutral terms (similar to the way the news was framed on his website) and rolled into a question directed at fellow conservative commentator Laura Ingraham.
Ingraham, a big league Trump booster, also declined to attack Manning or WikiLeaks.
Breitbart News played Obama's decision to release Manning about as straightforward as can be. The site has previously referred to Manning as a “traitorous transsexual,” but it used no such language this time.
And Trump, who has an opinion about everything, has remained silent on Manning's commutation. He once suggested Assange should be put to death for publishing the kind of information supplied by Manning but has eagerly embraced Assange's claim that Russia did not provide Democrats' emails to WikiLeaks — while questioning U.S. intelligence agencies that think Russia was involved.
On Fox News earlier this month, a candidly self-aware Greg Gutfeld joked about conservatives' inconsistencies.
“I have advice to Chelsea Manning: Start bashing Obama,” Gutfeld, a Fox News host, said. “The Republicans are going to love you. ... She should actually — she should say that she believes that Donald Trump is doing the right thing, and then all of a sudden we'll love Chelsea Manning just the way we now love Assange.”
Had Manning taken Gutfeld's tip to heart, perhaps she would not have had her prison sentence shortened. But Gutfeld's point about conservative flip-floppery still stands.