Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn’s guilty plea Friday signals that he already has provided federal prosecutors with incriminating information about President Donald Trump or senior members of his inner circle, marking an explosive turn in the investigation into whether Trump’s 2016 campaign collaborated in Russia’s election meddling, legal experts said.
The former national security adviser’s plea to a single count of lying to FBI agents, and the disclosure that he is cooperating with investigators, means Justice Department Special Counsel Robert Mueller has secured the inside witness he has sought for months in his sprawling inquiry.
Flynn, a former three-star Army general, admitted that he lied about multiple contacts he had with Russia’s U.S. ambassador in the weeks before Trump was sworn in as president. The disclosure provided concrete evidence that Trump’s transition team twice sought secretly to undermine U.S. foreign policy decisions of President Barack Obama, even influencing Russia’s decision not to immediately strike back after Obama imposed sanctions in retaliation for the Kremlin’s attempt to tilt the election to Trump.
Flynn’s misrepresentations about his phone conversations with Kislyak to Vice President Mike Pence, the White House has said, led to Flynn’s firing after just 24 days in office.
A frequent companion of Trump on his campaign plane and a fiery speaker at his rallies, Flynn could now be a key witness against the president if Mueller concludes he has legal grounds to prosecute him. A key aspect of the investigation focuses on whether Trump sought to obstruct justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey, who led the Russia investigation until he was ousted May 9 after several awkward conversations with the president. Comey testified to Congress last June that Trump had demanded his loyalty and urged him to drop the bureau’s investigation of Flynn, saying that Flynn is “a good guy.”
Legal experts said Flynn’s fall from grace to a new role as a government witness also could heighten the legal jeopardy of a number of current and former Trump aides, including Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a key adviser during the campaign.
“The special counsel’s probe has found illegal behavior stretching into the senior most levels of the White House,” said Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is conducting one of three parallel congressional investigations.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, which also is investigating Russia’s cyber offensive, said Flynn’s cooperation “raises the stakes for anyone else who might be less than candid with federal authorities.”
“We know more than any other person, the president was concerned about the investigation of Mike Flynn,” he said in a phone interview.
During a packed hearing Friday morning in U.S. District Court in Washington, prosecutors made clear that at least two senior participants in Trump’s transition were aware of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak.
Flynn’s guilty plea indicated that Mueller is successfully – so far – employing one of the most effective tools available to a prosecutor: flipping witnesses by charging them with relatively light offenses in exchange for their cooperation against the most important individuals in the investigation.
Michael Zeldin, a former senior U.S. Justice Department official, said that Flynn has been caught in numerous lies and that four false statements were documented in the charges to which he pled.
“This is all he gets charged with?” Zeldin asked. “For a prosecutor to give someone this big a break, assuming there’s no other indictment that’s been sealed … then he’s got something important to say.”
It’s standard practice, in negotiating a plea deal in exchange for cooperation, for prosecutors to interview the defendant “in a one-day, queen-for-a-day where what he says will not be used against him,” Zeldin said.
Zeldin said Flynn’s attempt to dissuade Russia from supporting a United Nations resolution condemning Israel’s approval of settlements on occupied Palestinian lands “at a minimum implicates Kushner,” whom Trump has assigned to try to broker a Middle East peace agreement.
It was Kushner who directed Flynn to contact Kislyak about the UN resolution, a source familiar with the inquiry, who was not authorized to speak for the record, told McClatchy. The New York Times reported that Mueller’s investigators also have learned that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked the Trump transition team to lobby other countries on Israel’s behalf; the investigators have evidence that Flynn and Kushner led that effort.
Kushner also was a key advocate urging Trump to fire Comey, according to sources close to the White House.
Responding to Friday’s developments and ongoing controversies about Kushner’s roles during the transition and in the administration, one former Trump aide said it’s time for Kushner to go.
"Jared should put the country and the White House over himself for once and resign now,” said Sam Nunberg, a top aide during early stages of Trump’s campaign. “Just get it over with. It's going to happen one way or the other regardless."
Jaimie Nawaday, a former federal prosecutor in New York, also said Flynn’s plea “indicates that he has provided substantial assistance to the Mueller investigation. Most likely this means that Flynn has already given valuable information on one or more individuals higher up in the campaign or the administration.”
But Ty Cobb, a lawyer for Trump, minimized the development and referred to Flynn as a “former Obama administration official.” Flynn headed the Defense Intelligence Agency in the Obama administration; he was fired from that post, however, and Obama urged Trump not to include Flynn in his national security team.
“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” Cobb said in a statement. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the special counsel's work demonstrates again that the special counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
Flynn, expressionless and ramrod straight, brushed past a crowd of reporters without uttering a word after entering his plea.
But in a statement, he said “it has been extraordinarily painful to enure the many months of false accusations of ‘treason’ and other outrageous acts. Such false accusations are contrary to everything I have ever done and stood for.”
“But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.” He said he agreed to plead guilty “in the best interests of my family and of our country.”
Flynn not only drew scrutiny over his contacts with Russia’s top U.S. diplomat, but also because his consulting firm last year accepted more than $70,000 from three Russian companies, including RT TV, the Kremlin’s leading global propaganda arm. RT flew Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., to Moscow in December 2015 where they stayed in a hotel off Red Square and attended a gala at which Flynn sat an arm’s length from Russia President Vladimir Putin.
Last December, Flynn and Kushner held a brief meeting with Kislyak at Trump Tower in New York shortly before Obama imposed his sanctions on Moscow. Days after the meeting with Kislyak, Kushner met privately with a Russian banker with intelligence ties; the banker and the White House gave conflicting reasons for the meeting.
Flynn’s son, who worked closely with his father at his consulting firm, the Flynn Intel Group, has also drawn scrutiny from Mueller; it is not unusual for prosecutors to agree to go easy on a suspect’s family members in exchange for the suspect’s cooperation, though it’s unclear whether Mueller has offered leniency in this case. In the weeks before the election, Flynn Jr. famously drew attention to a false conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic opponent, had run a pedophile ring in the basement of a Washington pizza parlor.
Sputnik, another Kremlin-backed news agency, on Friday published a story accusing the “liberal resistance” in the United States of magnifying Flynn’s plea into a “Russian collusion smoking gun.” The story emphasized that Flynn was prosecuted for lying about a conversation aimed at preventing tensions between Russia and the United States and asked, “What’s the crime?”
Flynn — who once chanted “lock her up” from the podium at the Republican National Convention, in reference to Clinton — is the fourth former Trump aide to face criminal charges in recent weeks as a result of Mueller's investigation. On Oct. 30, the special counsel announced the indictment of former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort and his associate Rick Gates, and that an ex-foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to false statement charges and was cooperating with investigators.
With his plea, Flynn admitted to lying to an FBI agent on January 24, when he was national security adviser, about two exchanges with Kislyak.
In a court filing laying out Flynn’s offenses, prosecutors said:
- Flynn contacted Kislyak on Dec. 21 and Dec. 23 at the request of an unidentified "very senior member of the presidential transition team" to ask Russia to oppose or delay a United Nations Security Council resolution introduced by Egypt opposing Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land. Flynn had been directed by the senior transition member to contact numerous countries about the resolution. In the second conversation between them Kislyak told Flynn that Russia would not oppose the resolution.
- The second exchange occurred after Obama imposed sanctions against Russia on Dec. 29, expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the United States because of its cyber meddling in the U.S. presidential election, which included hacks of top Democrats’ emails. After being contacted by Kislyak, Flynn phoned an unnamed "senior official of the presidential transition team" who was at the Trump-owned Mar-a-Lago resort with other high-level transition officials. The Associated Press identified the transition official as K.T. McFarland, who later became Flynn’s deputy national security adviser.
- Flynn conveyed to Kislyak the senior transition officials’ wish that Russia not escalate the situation. Flynn spoke again with the same senior transition member after speaking with Kislyak. Putin issued a statement on Dec. 30 saying he wouldn't retaliate against the United States for the sanctions, and Kisylak told Flynn the next day that it was in response to Flynn's request.
Alluding to the larger scope of Flynn’s legal exposure, prosecutors said he also made "false statements and omissions" with regard to foreign lobbying forms he filed on March 7 by understating the extent to which he was working on behalf of Turkey, although his consulting firm was hired by a Dutch company.
Many establishment Republicans have privately expressed a strong distaste for Trump’s unorthodox conduct.
One prominent business lobbyist remarked after Friday’s plea: “The walls are closing in on the Trump team.”
Peter Stone is a special correspondent.