What to know about Michael Flynn and the Russia probe
Michael Flynn texted a business partner as President Donald Trump was delivering his inaugural address last January to say that a joint plan between Russia and Flynn’s business allies to build nuclear power plants in the Middle East was “good to go.”
That’s the account a whistleblower told Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which has been investigating Flynn’s role in the project. Cummings described the account in a letter Wednesday to the panel’s Republican chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina.
Cummings also said the whistleblower quoted a business associate of Flynn as saying the economic sanctions against Russia imposed by former President Barack Obama would be “ripped up” as Flynn’s first order of business as Trump’s national security adviser.
The Maryland Democrat said he considered “credible” the allegations that Flynn “sought to manipulate the course of international nuclear policy for the financial gain of his former business partners.”
Cummings said the whistleblower, whom he did not identify in the letter, “fears retaliation,” but would speak with Gowdy if he agrees to protect the whistleblower’s identity. Cummings and committee Democrats have complained that Gowdy has stiff-armed the Flynn investigation since he took over the committee in June by consistently refusing to issue subpoenas to the White House and various administration officials, Flynn’s consulting firm and his business colleagues related to the matter. The letter asks that the committee issue subpoenas for Flynn-related documents it requested on a bipartisan basis in March.
Gowdy ignored Cumming's invitation to speak with the whistleblower in a barbed reply later Wednesday. The South Carolina lawmaker told his Democratic colleague that the House Intelligence and Judiciary committees have "primary jurisdiction" over the issues he raised, saying he’d shared Cummings’ letter with the Intelligence panel.
Cummings’ complaints about Gowdy’s refusal to issue subpoenas echoes mounting criticism from congressional Democrats, who say Republican committee leaders have impeded congressional inquiries into the Trump presidential campaign and Russia.
“I believe the American people want Congress to hold President Trump and his administration accountable,” Cummings wrote, “and they are tired of Republicans in Congress putting their heads in the sand when faced with credible allegations of grave abuses.”
Cummings said in the letter that Gowdy’s handling of the Flynn investigation sharply contrasts with the lengthy inquiry he led into allegations about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s role in the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, “that were debunked years ago.”
Gowdy responded to that charge curtly, referring to Cummings' "continued obsession" with the Benghazi investigation. "Perhaps your memory is poor because you spent two years obstructing, delaying and obfuscating the investigation. If it had been up to you," Gowdy wrote, the private email server used by Hillary Clinton, which came to light during the Benghazi probe, "would still be a mystery."
Cummings also noted that Gowdy has defended his hands-off approach because he did not want to hamper Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 election.
In a letter in October to Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, Gowdy wrote: “I will not risk interfering with any ongoing criminal probes.”
But in 2015, when he led the special panel to investigate Benghazi, Gowdy said in a Fox interview that if a Republican was president and he was still in Congress, “I promise you, I will make her or him be responsive to the people’s House when they have legitimate requests for documents.” And in a document accompanying his letter, Cummings detailed numerous investigations by the Oversight and other House committees that conducted parallel investigations to ongoing federal criminal probes.
“It is astonishing that the sitting Chairman of the Oversight Committee apparently is refusing to meet with a whistleblower who agreed to come forward — despite fear of retaliation — and that he would resort to desperate jurisdictional excuses to avoid conducting oversight. Rather than continue protecting President Trump and his administration, I hope the Chairman will reconsider his refusal.”
Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
The whistleblower, who provided his account to Cummings in June, said he was with Alex Copson, managing partner of ACU Strategic Partners, a key Flynn ally on the nuclear project, on Jan. 20, Inauguration Day.
“Mike has been putting everything in place for us,” Copson told the whistleblower. “I am going to celebrate today. This is going to make a lot of very wealthy people.”
The whistleblower said Copson showed him his phone with Flynn’s text message; it was sent at 12:11 p.m., about 10 minutes into Trump’s inaugural speech. Copson told the whistleblower, according to the Cummings letter, that Flynn would ensure the sanctions were withdrawn.
Copson, according to the whistleblower, said Obama’s sanctions had “f**ked everything up in my nuclear deal with the sanctions.” Copson could not be reached for comment.
Obama imposed the sanctions last December in retaliation for Russia’s meddling in the election.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general and former high-ranking intelligence officer, pleaded guilty last week to lying to the FBI about his discussions with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the sanctions the day after they were imposed.
As part of his plea deal with the special counsel, Flynn agreed to be a cooperative witness in exchange for avoiding prosecution on other charges that might be related to his involvement with Russia during the campaign, the presidential transition and his brief stint as national security adviser.
Trump fired Flynn after he’d been national security adviser for just over three weeks amid questions of whether he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his calls with Kislyak. The White House has claimed that Flynn was acting on his own. But court documents related to Flynn’s guilty plea as well other materials reveal that his contacts with Russia were known among top Trump administration officials.
In a timeline provided by Cummings, the Maryland legislator said he wrote to Pence, who headed the transition team, after the November election, to warn him about Flynn’s apparent conflicts of interests because of his lobbying efforts on behalf of various foreign interests. The transition office told Cummings it received the letter 10 days later and promised to review it “carefully.”
But asked in a Fox News interview last March about Flynn’s foreign entanglements, Pence said, “Let me say, hearing that story today was the first I heard of it.” In May, Pence’s office told NBC News that he never received the letter.
Partisan fractiousness has dominated the House investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. Republican operatives also have ramped up efforts to find ways to discredit Mueller, who is leading a broad investigation into whether Trump’s campaign aides or his associates collaborated in Russia’s 2016 cyberattacks aimed at helping Trump win the White House.
The lone exception to rising partisan tensions in congressional investigations appears to be the Senate Intelligence Committee, where Chairman Richard Burr, a North Carolina Republican who has announced he will not seek reelection, and ranking Democratic Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia have generally presented a united front.
Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee this month have jammed Democratic members and investigative staff by scheduling interviews with as many as three or four figures per day in a push to wrap up the inquiry, said people familiar with the matter, who declined to be identified to avoid damaging relationships. They said Democratic members, led by California Rep. Adam Schiff, have not had enough time to prepare for many of the interviews.
Schiff aired his frustration again on Tuesday after learning that Mueller had subpoenaed records of loans that Deutsche Bank extended to his real estate development company in the years before his presidential run. Schiff said Democrats asked the Republican committee leaders months ago to subpoena those records and got no action.
“If Russia laundered money through the Trump Organization, it would be far more compromising than any salacious video,” Schiff said, referring to the spy’s report that Russia might possess compromising information about Trump and Russian women.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Charles Grassley of Iowa and top Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California have agreed to conduct separate inquiries. Feinstein said this week she has concluded that Grassley does not want to dig "deeply" into the Russia questions. Republicans on that committee as well as the House Intelligence panel have directed much of their attention to probing the private investigative firm that hired a former British spy during the campaign to collect opposition research on Trump’s connections to Russia.
Republicans gained ammunition this week when it was disclosed that Mueller had removed a senior FBI agent from the investigation after finding he had sent anti-Trump text messages. It was revealed on Tuesday that the agent, Peter Strzok, also had a role in changing language in a draft of former FBI Director James Comey’s July 2016 announcement that he would not recommend criminal prosecution of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, over her use of a private email server to conduct official business while secretary of state. The language was changed from describing Clinton as “grossly negligent” – a legal term – to “extremely careless.”
Republican operatives have pushed members of the House Intelligence and Oversight committees to hold hearings that would look at allegations that some Mueller staffers are biased and Democratic partisans. The Republicans also sought to draw attention to Mueller’s report this week disclosing his office has spent $3.2 million since he took office last May.
"It's imperative that Congress use their oversight on the Mueller investigation to let the public know how our tax dollars are being spent," said Sam Nunberg, who had a key post with the Trump campaign for a few months in 2015. "The more that is disclosed about the expenditures, perhaps the investigation will cease."