A year-old conspiracy theory simmering in both far-right message boards and mainstream conservative publications that predicted former national security advisor Michael Flynn would be exonerated fell apart on Tuesday at his sentencing hearing, leaving believers perplexed.
The rumors, which were pushed heavily by believers in the Qanon conspiracy theory in recent days, predicted that Judge Emmett Sullivan would throw out Flynn’s guilty plea and reprimand Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team for nefarious investigating practices.
In reality, Sullivan excoriated Flynn, saying that “arguably, you sold your country out” by working as an unregistered foreign agent to Turkey while advising President Donald Trump during his candidacy and clarifying with Flynn that he did not wish to challenge the circumstances under which he was interviewed by the FBI. Flynn's defense attorneys suggested last week that he had somehow been entrapped into lying to the FBI.
“I was aware” that lying to the FBI was a crime, Flynn told Sullivan, adding that he accepted responsibility for his false statements.
Though Sullivan delayed sentencing Flynn for three months, noting that Flynn could cooperate further with Mueller’s team, he made it clear that a jail term for Flynn remains a possibility.
As Mueller’s investigation has widened and ensnared more members of Trump’s team, conspiracy theories of Trump loyalists have been forced into a variety of contortions to justify the belief that the special prosecutor’s actions are working in Trump’s favor or an abuse of prosecutorial power.
Many of those contortions relied on Flynn being let off by Sullivan, who on Tuesday made clear that would not be the case.
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“The idea that Flynn holds a lot of secrets about the deep state and won't face serious consequences is important to the Qanon community,” said Travis View, a conspiracy theory researcher. “They’ve been banking on Sullivan throwing out the charges.”
In the last week, conservative media had hailed Sullivan as a hero who was about to unmask the purported misdeeds of the Mueller investigation.
The notion that Flynn could end up exonerated found its way to Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who guessed on Fox News Sunday this week that Flynn’s case would be thrown out of court.
"I would not be surprised a bit if the conviction of Flynn is overturned, because of the Justice Department and FBI's misconduct,” Issa said.
The theory began back in February, with a series of articles onconservative news websites lauding Sullivan as a “government misconduct expert” who may be looking to get Flynn to change his plea.
“Emmet G. Sullivan is one judge who is ready, willing and able to hold Mr. Mueller accountable to the law and who has the wherewithal to dismiss the case against General Flynn — for egregious government misconduct — if Mueller doesn’t move to dismiss it himself,” wrote lawyer Sidney Powell on the Daily Caller on Feb. 16.
Similar articles from the same week in the Washington Examiner and National Review spawned additional speculation that Sullivan might be indicating that Flynn should change his plea.
From there, far-right message boards and members of the Qanon conspiracy community have been “banking on Sullivan throwing out the charges,” View said.
“This is actually one of those instances in which the conspiracy theory was sparked by respectable conservative publications, and then spread downward into the fever swamps,” View said.
“This is different from how conspiracy theories typically spread, in which fringe forums develop a theory, and it spreads to mainstream social networks like Twitter, and then to fringe publications.”
View said that a National Review article by Andrew McCarthy on Feb. 13 was a major catalyst for believers that Sullivan would vacate Flynn’s plea, even if that wasn’t McCarthy’s intention.
“McCarthy didn't actually endorse this view of course, and the possibility had a ‘just asking questions’ frame,” View said.
The web’s most active pro-Trump community, Reddit’s r/The_Donald, hailed Sullivan as an “American hero” in one of the site’s top posts this past weekend. Sullivan hasn’t been mentioned in the title of a post since the postponement.
Believers in Qanon, the repeatedly debunked conspiracy theory that Mueller and Trump are secretly working together to take down a global pedophile ring run by Democrats and many celebrities, also grew agitated at Sullivan’s inability to adhere to their prophecy.