Nobody should read too much into this. Trump will often be asked hypotheticals about very serious matters that other politicians would steer clear of and offer a “we'll see what happens” in response. Though in this case, I would point out, the “yet” and the FBI addendum at the end seem clearly geared toward planting a seed and even justifying a Flynn pardon were Trump to decide to do it.
But given how often Trump does this, it got me thinking: How suggestive is it? When Trump says “we'll see what happens,” how often does that controversial hypothetical action actually, well, happen?
Below are some examples that are similar to the Flynn situation, along with what Trump said and what actually happened.
Firing FBI Director James B. Comey
Trump's quote: From a Fox Business interview April 12:
MARIA BARTIROMO: Is it too late now to ask him to step down?TRUMP: No, it's not too late, but, you know, I have confidence in him. We'll see what happens. You know, it's going to be interesting . . .Don't forget, when Jim Comey came out, he saved Hillary Clinton. People don't realize that. He saved her life, because — I call it Comey won. And I joke about it a little bit. When he was reading those charges, she was guilty on every charge. And then he said, she was essentially okay. But he — she wasn't okay, because she was guilty on every charge.
What happened: Trump fired Comey a month later.
Firing Stephen K. Bannon
Trump's quote: At a news conference Aug. 15:
Q: Do you still have confidence in Steve?TRUMP: Well, we’ll see. Look, look — I like Mr. Bannon. He’s a friend of mine. But Mr. Bannon came on very late. You know that. I went through 17 senators, governors, and I won all the primaries. Mr. Bannon came on very much later than that. And I like him, he’s a good man. He is not a racist, I can tell you that. He’s a good person. He actually gets very unfair press in that regard. But we’ll see what happens with Mr. Bannon. But he’s a good person, and I think the press treats him, frankly, very unfairly.
What happened: Trump dismissed Bannon three days later.
Firing Tom Price
Trump's quote: During a gaggle Sept. 29:
TRUMP: I felt very badly because Secretary Price is a good man, but we are looking into it, and we're looking into it very strongly.Q: Do you consider it a fireable offense?TRUMP: Well, we’ll take a look. I’ll be announcing something in the pretty near future.
What happened: Price resigned later that day.
Pardoning Paul Manafort
Trump's quote: From a news conference Oct. 31:
Q: Are you going to pardon Mr. Manafort?TRUMP: Thank you all. Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. Thank you.
What happened: He hasn't pardoned Manafort.
So on some level, these Flynn comments are just Trump being Trump. But there are some parts of these answers that are worth emphasizing in relation to Flynn.
The first thing is that Trump ignored a shouted question about pardoning Manafort, but he answered the question about pardoning Flynn. That could be simply because it was easier to ignore that Manafort question given that it was less of a formal Q&A with the press (this was after a meeting with business leaders). But it's also true that Trump clearly feels some loyalty toward Flynn — even asking Comey to take it easy on him, according to Comey's testimony. Why not just give a similarly noncommittal answer about pardoning Manafort?
The second thing is that, if you look at Trump's comments about Comey and Bannon, he almost seemed to be explaining his actions before he took them. For Comey, it was that he was too easy on Clinton. For Bannon, it was that he wasn't really all that important to the 2016 campaign anyway. With Flynn, Trump's pre-justification seems to be that the FBI and the Justice Department can't be trusted and may have railroaded Flynn.
I still think the Flynn situation is somewhat different, though. The Comey question almost seemed like it was planted for Trump to float a trial balloon, and both Bannon and Price were clearly holding on for dear life. With Flynn, it's less clear that this is something Trump will do any time soon. It seems much more likely he's holding on to it as an option.
But given Trump's track record, the fact that he's reserving judgment shouldn't be discounted.