Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to the charge he misled FBI agents during a January 2017 interview after being asked about conversations with the Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
The next step: working with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office to go after his onetime confederates in Team Trump.
“My guilty plea and agreement and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and our country,” said the disgraced retired three-star Army general in a statement after he left a District of Columbia courtroom. "I accept full responsibility for my actions."
The cooperation of such a senior White House official with a criminal probe raises the stakes substantially for Trump, who has raged against an investigation he has insisted is baseless. And the next shoe to drop, legally, could fall on his son-in-law Jared Kushner, whom Mueller has reportedly interviewed this month.
While he served as President Trump’s national security adviser, Flynn denied asking Ambassador Sergey Kislyak for Russia to “refrain from escalating in response to [American] sanctions” the Obama administration had imposed on Moscow for meddling in the 2016 presidential election and that he asked Kislyak to delay a United Nations Security Council vote on Israeli settlements.
Mueller’s bombshell filing only concerns itself with Flynn’s deception to the FBI about his Kislyak conversations. It says nothing about any other area of potential legal jeopardy for the former three-star Army general, including his undisclosed lobbying work before and during his White House tenure on behalf of Turkey.
Robert Litt, who until Jan. 20 was the senior lawyer for the office of the director of national intelligence, said Flynn’s admissions flow from the role Mueller needs him to play: witness. In other words, the purpose of Mueller’s actions against Flynn on Friday are to hunt bigger Trump administration targets.
“The government needs have him admit that he lied, because that’s going to be the major area of cross-examination,” Litt told The Daily Beast. “He’s got felony jail exposure and will have to stand up in court this morning and say ‘Yes, I lied.’ That’s what the government needs if it wants to have him as a witness.”
Even before Flynn admitted that he was cooperating with Mueller, it was clear to veteran attorneys. Sol Wisenberg, a longtime Washington white-collar criminal-defense lawyer, said early Friday that it was inconceivable that Flynn wasn't cooperating with Mueller in some way.
That’s because the paperwork Mueller filed is called an information—it isn’t technically an indictment, and a grand jury didn’t sign off on it. Wisenberg said the only possible reason Mueller would skip indicting Flynn would be because it was a small favor in exchange for Flynn’s help.
Legally, pleading guilty to an information is the same thing as pleading guilty after being indicted. But it has a small public-relations benefit to the defendant.
“They’re not going to let Michael Flynn plead to a criminal information unless there’s a deal," Wisenberg added.
On Dec. 22, 2016, according to Mueller, Flynn asked Kislyak to “delay the vote on or defeat a pending United Nations Security Council resolution.” That resolution appears to be one critical of Israel, adopted the following day. Kislyak “described to Flynn Russia’s response to his request.”
Then, a week later, on Dec. 29 Flynn asked Kislyak to “refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia,” a final measure the Obama administration took to impose consequences for Russia’s election interference, from which Trump and Flynn benefited.
Flynn lied to the FBI about Kislyak “subsequently telling him that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request,” according to the court papers.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House on Jan. 26 and 27 that Flynn had not been truthful. Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to dinner on Jan. 27 and allegedly asked for Comey's "loyalty," Comey told Congress.
On Feb. 13, Flynn was fired as national security adviser. The next day, Trump asked Comey to "let Flynn go," Comey testified. Trump allegedly asked Comey several more times to drop the investigation into Flynn over ties to Russia before Trump fired Comey on May 9.
The charging of Flynn comes at the end of a spectacular fall for the retired three-star Army general. He was one of Trump’s earliest and most influential supporters during the presidential campaign. During the July 2016 Republican convention, he memorably led the crowd in chanting “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton.
“If I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today,” Flynn told the crowd.
Flynn’s last role in the military was leading the Defense Intelligence Agency. In the capacity, he took an unusual trip to Moscow—to visit the headquarters of the GRU, the Russian military intelligence service, in 2013. He was fired by the Obama administration the next year.
In 2015, Flynn was paid to address the Russian state-sponsored television network RT during a gala in Moscow. After his speech, Flynn dined with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Against Defense Department regulations, Flynn did not disclose he was paid by a foreign government.
Flynn began advising Trump on national security matters in 2016 and was reportedly vetted to be his vice presidential pick. That summer, Flynn started a lobbying and consulting business, the Flynn Intel Group, that retained Turkish interests as clients.
By fall 2016, Flynn had published an op-ed calling exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused of supporting a coup against Turkey's president, a "radical Islamist." Flynn reportedly received a Turkish proposal to pay his business $15 million to extradite Gulen from the United States to Turkey and free a Turkish businessman charged with violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
Flynn did not register his firm a foreign agent for its business on behalf of Turkey, a potential crime, until this past summer.
Yet despite all the transgressions—and despite the investigation into his activities—Trump long pined to bring Flynn back into his inner circle. “Trump feels really, really, really bad about firing him, and he genuinely thinks if the investigation is over Flynn can come back,” one White House official told The Daily Beast in May.
But Flynn was not the only incoming Trump administration official in contact with Kislyak during the Trump transition—and therefore, may not be the only member of Team Trump in legal jeopardy.
So too was Jared Kushner, whose portfolio in the administration now includes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, about which he is scheduled to talk publicly at Washington’s Brookings Institution on Sunday. Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is reportedly in Mueller’s legal crosshairs as well.
Evelyn Farkas, a Pentagon official during the Obama administration overseeing Russia policy, said Flynn’s charging prompts immediate questions about Kushner’s legal jeopardy—as well as his policy exposure between Israel and Russia.
“Did Kushner speak truthfully, and is there some potential indictment coming down for Kushner on this front?” Farkas told the Daily Beast.
But Robert Litt said that Flynn's charging “doesn’t say anything one way or the other” about Kushner’s potential legal exposure. Flynn’s lies in his FBI interview were disproved by intercepts of his conversation with Kislyak.
“Nothing from the public record indicates” that Kushner communicated with Kislyak in an interceptable format, Litt told The Daily Beast. But when asked if there are in fact intercepts of Kushner’s communications with Kislyak, Litt, a senior member of the U.S. intelligence community during December 2016, declined to answer and cautioned against reading too much into his non-response.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff