Flynn’s Plea Deal Brings Russia Scandal Home for Holidays
President Donald Trump has repeatedly expressed his wish for an early wrap to the Russia investigations. Today, he sort of got his Christmas wish as special counsel Robert S. Mueller III dropped Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, into a box, wrapped him in glitter paper and a big bow, and ordered it shipped to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The Trump Tower scandal investigation has finally reached deep inside the White House itself.
In the biggest turn of the investigation so far, Mueller got Flynn to plead guilty to making false statements to the FBI and secured his pledge to cooperate with prosecutors in building their case against others in the Trump orbit. Flynn, the former three-star general, was no ordinary Trump administration official. He was no Trump org satellite like George Papadopoulos, the campaign adviser derisively referred to by Trump’s team as a “coffee boy” after he pleaded guilty in October to lying to investigators. During the campaign, Flynn was probably Trump’s most ardent and vocal defender, the surrogate most likely at a rally to lead a “Lock her up!” chant, prepared to take any assignment or storm any hill for his man.
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Trump returned Flynn’s devotion, appointing him to the national security post over the objections of transition official Chris Christie—”If I were president-elect of the United States, I wouldn’t let General Flynn in the White House, let alone give him a job,” Christie later said. Even after the president, 24 days into his administration, sacked Flynn—allegedly for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak—the president maintained a vigil over Flynn, or at least his reputation, calling him “a wonderful man.” He told his staff to stop “piling on” Flynn in the press, continued to praise Flynn’s briefing style, and all but commanded FBI Director James B. Comey to end his investigation of the former general.
The two men now will retreat to their respective bunkers and next emerge as unswerving legal combatants.
Presumably, Flynn flipped from Trump’s friend to his enemy in exchange for lenient treatment from the court and Mueller. The special counsel has a buffet of other charges he could bring against Flynn—additional lies to investigators; failure to register as a lobbyist; failure to report payments on security clearance forms. Potential charges against Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, gave Mueller additional leverage in flipping his man. “My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. I accept full responsibility for my actions,” Flynn wrote in a statement.
What forced Flynn into Mueller’s hands was the passel of lies he told the FBI in January about his conversations with Kislyak during the transition, before the Trump administration officially took over. He told the FBI that he had never discussed sanctions with the ambassador; he also said he had never discussed with Kislyak defeating or delaying a United Nations resolution about Israeli settlements. In both cases he lied and those lies “had a material impact on the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the Campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election,” Mueller’s prosecutors wrote in their “statement of the offense.”
The substance of Flynn’s discussion with Kislyak, legal sharp-eyes quickly noted, qualify as potential violations of the Logan Act. This rarely prosecuted law bars nongovernment figures from conducting foreign policy and would apply to the pre-inauguration Trump team, who were not yet government employees. (The law has its uses, though. The government often uses it to strong-arm freelance “diplomats” like Flynn.)
Why did Flynn tell Kislyak to kill or stall the U.N. resolution, and what was the resolution about? According to court documents, Flynn’s instructions came from a “very senior member” of the Trump transition team. CNN, MSNBC and other outlets have identified the very senior member as first son-in-law Jared Kushner—who was at the center of the incoming White House inner circle. Kushner, who had been placed in charge of Israel policy by Trump, allegedly ordered Flynn to tell the ambassador (and other countries) how to vote on a resolution about the condemnation of Israeli settlements. “It puts Jared Kushner in the line of coordination or plotting with the Russians about diplomacy goals at the U.N. and raises the question about how high these orders came,” said MSNBC’s Ari Melber, who speculated that the contacts might present criminal exposure for Kushner.
Today’s findings push other members of the White House inner circle into legal jeopardy, perhaps even Donald Trump. Federal prosecutors told the court today that on December 29, 2016, Flynn called an unnamed “senior official” working in the Trump transition “who was with other senior members of the Presidential Transition Team” at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort “to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions.”