For this, Sullivan earned the ire of Fox News hosts who have been arguing that Flynn’s prosecution was the canary in the coal mine of a coup against President Trump.
Former New York state judge Jeanine Pirro said Wednesday night that Sullivan should “recuse himself” from the case, adding “he should be embarrassed to put a robe on.”
“And now what he’s doing is he’s poisoning the 2020 election by trying to make it look like [Attorney General] Bill Barr,” she said. “He’s trying to destroy the whole thing so that Barr looks like the villain here.”
Sean Hannity offered an extensive broadside against Sullivan later in Fox’s prime-time programming.
“Mr. Sullivan, what part of General Flynn being ambushed and set up by [former FBI deputy director Andrew] McCabe and [former FBI director James] Comey don’t you understand?” Hannity said Wednesday night, accusing Sullivan of taking a “clearly political stand.”
He added: “You botched this from Day One, and you had a bias from Day One,” he seethed. “You reek of ignorance, you reek of political bias!”
But if Sullivan had botched this from Day One, that’s certainly news … to Fox News. There was a time not that long ago that its opinion hosts and analysts lifted up Sullivan as a paragon of virtue. At the time, some of them wishfully believed he was about to blow the lid off the supposed scandal they’re suddenly pressing with gusto again.
Back in December 2018, they hailed a decision by Sullivan to dig deeper into the circumstances of the interview in which Flynn lied. They argued he was the kind of watchdog for prosecutorial misconduct that was needed at the moment. Sullivan, after all, had dismissed the case against former senator Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) for those reasons, angrily rebuking the government.
Nobody on Fox leaned as hard into the idea that Sullivan was their hero-in-waiting as Pirro.
In a segment at the time, she hailed 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 also suggested Flynn’s guilty plea might be thrown out entirely at that point, and that it could undo then-special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s entire Russia investigation in the process.
“The amazing part of it is,” Pirro said, “if he does it, then the house of cards of Robert Mueller falls.”
Hannity at the time also supported the idea.
“Tomorrow, by 3 p.m., U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan could have the answers to all of these questions,” Hannity said, adding: “This is the same judge who dismissed the corruption conviction, eight convictions, of Republican senator Ted Stevens after discovering rampant misconduct from federal prosecutors in that case, including what he called a blatant attempt to withhold exculpatory evidence.”
Fox News legal analyst Gregg Jarrett said, “If he finds that they falsified evidence, he can throw out the guilty plea of Flynn and set him free.”
“Why do I think we’re headed in that direction?” Hannity responded rhetorically.
Hannity then again hopefully brought up Sullivan’s handling of the Stevens case, to which Fox News contributor Sara Carter responded: “And Ted Stevens is a perfect example of why Judge Sullivan now … overseeing the Flynn case is so important.”
When Sullivan probed further into the prosecution of Flynn, Jarrett hailed the action, saying, “You know, these prosecutors, Mueller’s prosecutors, tried to follow a fast one on this federal judge, Emmet Sullivan. He was having none of it.”
Former congressman and occasional Hannity fill-in host Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) said at one point, “I like this Judge Sullivan. He’s got a good record of doing this. I’m glad he’s probing into this.”
Added Carter at another point: “Well, I think Judge Sullivan is not just going to sit back and allow Mueller and the special counsel to walk all over him. I think he is definitely going to make a statement.”
He did make a statement — except it wasn’t at all the one they were anticipating. Rather than throw out the prosecution and rebuke Mueller’s team, Sullivan went very much in the opposite direction. He played up the gravity of Flynn’s offenses and rebuked his legal team for trying to suggest Flynn had been railroaded into lying to the FBI.
Sullivan repeatedly forced Flynn to restate he was guilty of knowingly lying to the FBI. He also pointed to Flynn’s various other lies, including about lobbying for Turkey, and said, “Arguably, you sold your country out.” At one point he even asked prosecutors whether they had considered charging Flynn with treason.
That doesn’t mean Sullivan might not ultimately grant the Justice Department’s attempt to dismiss the case. But it is a remarkable turn from the people who once hailed Sullivan as their savior-in-waiting — as long as he ruled like he wanted them to.
Maybe the lesson from the previous instance is that one shouldn’t assume what a ruling might be just because a judge like Sullivan seeks more information.