- REUTERS/Carlos Barria
- Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his conversations with the former Russian ambassador.
- Flynn confirmed in a statement that he is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
- His testimony could shed light on why Trump wanted former FBI director James Comey to drop the bureau’s probe into Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak and lobbying work on behalf of foreign entities.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn on Friday was charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation with making false statements to federal investigators about his conversations with former Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak last December.
The 1.5-page court document brings to the forefront questions about whether President Donald Trump sought to obstruct justice when he asked former FBI Director James Comey in February, shortly after Flynn was forced to resign over his conversations with Kislyak, if he would consider “letting” Flynn “go.”
Flynn confirmed in a statement on Friday after pleading guilty to the charge that he did make false statements to federal agents. He said he is now cooperating with Mueller’s office.
The charges shed new light on Flynn’s December meeting with Kislyak and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who proposed establishing a secret back-channel line of communication with Moscow that would evade scrutiny by the US intelligence community.
Cornell Law professor Jens David Ohlin, who specializes in criminal law, said that “the fact that Flynn was charged with, and is pleading guilty to, such a minor crime, suggests a bombshell of a deal with prosecutors.”
“Flynn was facing serious criminal liability for a variety of alleged missteps, including his failure to register as an agent of a foreign power,” Ohlin said, referring to Flynn’s lobbying work for Turkish government interests throughout the latter half of 2016.
“If this is the entirety of the plea deal, the best explanation for why Mueller would agree to it is that Flynn has something very valuable to offer in exchange: damaging testimony on someone else,” Ohlin added.
Flynn’s attorney said in a statement in March that Flynn “has a story to tell,” but would only tell it in exchange for immunity from federal and congressional investigators.
None took Flynn up on his offer, and Trump reportedly sent him a private message in April urging him to “stay strong.”
‘What does Flynn have on Trump?’
- Thomson Reuters
According to Mueller’s office, Flynn asked Kislyak on December 29 “to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia that same day.”
Flynn told federal agents that Trump had asked him to communicate with Russia during the transition, according to Fox News reporter John Roberts.
Flynn was interviewed by the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak in January, when prosecutors say he lied to them about it. He also misled Vice President Mike Pence, who insisted in an interview in January that Flynn and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
Trump waited nearly three weeks to fire Flynn after the White House was warned by former acting Attorney General Sally Yates on January 26 that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Yates testified earlier this year that she told White House counsel Don McGahn that “the conduct Flynn had engaged in” when speaking to Kislyak “was problematic in and of itself.”
“And we told him we were concerned that the American people had been misled about what General Flynn had done, and that we weren’t the only ones who knew about this,” Yates said. “Russia also knew what Flynn had done, and that he had misled the vice president and others. This was a problem, because the Russians likely had proof of this information, which created a situation where he could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Trump also ignored advice by President Barack Obama – who fired Flynn as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 – to steer clear of him entirely.
“What was it about Michael Flynn that everyone in the Trump orbit wanted desperately to have him in the administration?” CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin wondered aloud earlier this year. “Why did they keep him?”
Matt Viser, the Boston Globe’s Washington correspondent, went a step further: “If Trump took this many risks to appease Mike Flynn and give him such a prominent role, it makes you wonder: What does Flynn have on Trump?”
‘I hope you can let this go’
On January 27, one day after Yates’ expressed her concerns about Flynn to White House counsel Don McGahn, Trump invited Comey, then the FBI director, to dinner and asked for his loyalty – twice.
Yates was fired on January 30 when she refused to defend the administration’s travel ban.
Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation on February 13, shortly after The Washington Post reported that Flynn had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions. One day later, Trump met with Comey again and asked him if he would consider “letting Flynn go.”
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey, according to a memo Comey wrote memorializing the meeting, which he later presented at congressional testimony. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey recalled during the congressional hearing in June that Trump asked Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions to leave the room before asking him to drop the Flynn probe.
Comey said he demurred, and also refused to acknowledge publicly that Trump himself was not under FBI investigation. He was abruptly fired by Trump in May. A day later, Trump told Kislyak and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov during a meeting in the Oval Office that Comey was “a nut job” whose dismissal had taken a great deal of pressure off Trump.
Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt in an interview shortly thereafter that “the Russia thing” was on his mind when he fired Comey.
‘A blind spot’ for Flynn
- Joshua Roberts/Reuters
NBC reported earlier this year that Trump’s family “had a blind spot” for Flynn, who asked Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner for the national security adviser position shortly after Trump was elected.
Flynn reportedly told the transition team, led by Pence, that he was being investigated by the FBI over his lobbying work for Turkey. Trump hired him anyway.
“Trump’s team knew about [Flynn’s] ties to Russia and they knew about his work with Turkey,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democrat who sits on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview with Business Insider earlier this year. “What’s most concerning is that it looks like they just didn’t care. So you have to ask yourself – were Flynn’s prior relationships an asset?”
White House officials quickly denied that the reported conversation among Kushner, Ivanka Trump, and Flynn about the national security adviser position ever took place, calling it “complete and total nonsense.”
But Kushner and Flynn were in touch throughout December on issues related to Russia and the incoming administration’s foreign policy objectives more broadly.
Kushner and Flynn met with Kislyak on December 1 at Trump Tower. Following a bombshell Washington Post report, Kushner acknowledged that he had asked the Russian ambassador whether a direct line of communication could be set up between the transition team and Moscow. But he disputed its characterization as a “backchannel” and said it was meant to discuss fighting ISIS with Russia in Syria.
About three weeks later, Kushner asked Flynn to call Kislyak again, this time to persuade Russia to veto a UN resolution that would condemn Israel’s settlements in disputed Palestinian territory. Kislyak rebuffed Flynn’s request, and Russia did not intervene.
KT McFarland: ‘A curious hill to die on’
One week later, however, Trump transition official KT McFarland reportedly advised Flynn to ask the Russians not to retaliate against the sanctions imposed by Obama on December 28.
It is unclear whether McFarland consulted with Trump, then president-elect, before asking Flynn to discuss the sanctions with Kislyak.
Colin Kahl, a former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, noted that “incoming Deputy National Security Advisors don’t order their incoming boss what to do … unless they were instructed to do so by someone higher in the chain of command.”
Former NSC spokesman Ned Price agreed.
“KT McFarland’s recent foreign policy bona fides consisted of being a Fox News talking head,” he tweeted. “She wasn’t calling the shots, and certainly not giving her own orders to her putative boss.”
The White House protected McFarland, who served as Flynn’s deputy on the National Security Council, even when doing so didn’t make much sense. Trump’s initial pick to replace Flynn as national security adviser, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, reportedly turned down the role because the White House would not allow him to replace McFarland with his own hand-picked deputy.
“Defending KT McFarland would be a very curious hill to die on,” Politico reporter Michael Crowley said at the time.
“McFarland over Harward makes no sense,” tweeted BBC reporter Katty Kay.
Flynn was eventually replaced by Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Trump nominated McFarland to serve as the US ambassador to Singapore. McFarland has yet to be confirmed nearly seven months later.