For months, one important, unanswered question has been why President Trump was so intent on protecting disgraced former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Since Trump is hardly known for looking out for anyone other than himself, the logical explanation has been that he’s worried that Flynn knows something that could be damaging to Trump if he reveals it to prosecutors.
Today, we have what may be the most significant news in this story yet. Michael Flynn may have just flipped on Trump:
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and court records indicate he was acting under instructions from senior Trump transition officials in his dealings with the diplomat.
Flynn’s admission to the charge Friday in federal district court in D.C. could be an ominous sign for the White House, as Flynn is cooperating in the ongoing probe of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election. His plea revealed that he was in touch with senior Trump transition officials before and after his communications with Kislyak — rebutting the idea that he was a rogue operator.
Put a pin in this question: Why did Flynn lie to the FBI? As a key member of the presidential transition, it might have been perfectly reasonable for him to be in communication with foreign governments about substantive matters that would affect the incoming administration (providing it were coordinated with the outgoing administration). So what was Flynn trying to hide?
Now let’s add this wrinkle, from ABC News:
Retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn has promised “full cooperation” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation and, according to a confidant, is prepared to testify that Donald Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians, initially as a way to work together to fight ISIS in Syria…
A close confidant told ABC News that Flynn felt abandoned by Trump in recent weeks, and told friends about the decision to make the plea deal within the last 24 hours as he grew increasingly concerned about crippling legal costs he would face if he continued to contest the charges.
Recall the backstory here: A few days after Trump took office, Flynn lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. We know this because then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House officials that Flynn had lied to the FBI — which the Justice Department knew since they were monitoring Kislyak’s communications — and had therefore made himself vulnerable to blackmail. Yet for some reason it took 18 days after the White House learned this information for Flynn to be fired. Trump specifically denied that he had directed Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador. And right after the firing, Trump not only began praising Flynn to the heavens in public but also embarked on a behind-the-scenes campaign to get investigators to lay off him.
There’s another major story that just happened to break today, in which the New York Times reports that Trump has been pressing members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to end their investigation of Russian meddling in the election. Given the fact that multiple strands of this scandal point to the possibility that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is building a case of obstruction of justice against the president, it would be useful to remind ourselves of all the different times Trump has taken steps to shut down the Russia probe. Let’s look at the timeline:
- Feb. 13: Michael Flynn is fired from his post as national security adviser.
- Feb. 14: At the end of an Oval Office meeting, Trump tells everyone except then-FBI Director James B. Comey to leave. Comey testifies later that after they were alone, the president told him that Flynn hadn’t done anything wrong, and that “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
- March: Trump makes separate requests of National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats that they declare publicly that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia, which they decline to do, according to people close to the two officials. “In addition to the requests to Coats and Rogers, senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn.”
- March 30: Trump calls Comey in his office. According to Comey’s testimony, “He said he had nothing to do with Russia. … He asked what we could do to ‘lift the cloud.’ I responded that we were investigating the matter as quickly as we could, and that there would be great benefit, if we didn’t find anything, to our having done the work well. He agreed, but then re-emphasized the problems this was causing him.”
- April 11: As Comey tells it, Trump calls him again and requests that Comey say publicly that he is not under investigation. Trump “added, ‘Because I have been very loyal to you, very loyal; we had that thing you know.’ I did not reply or ask him what he meant by ‘that thing.'”
- April 25: Michael Flynn tells friends that “I just got a message from the president to stay strong.”
- May 9: Trump fires Comey.
- May 10: Trump meets in the Oval Office with the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. According to a White House document summarizing the meeting, he tells them that because he fired Comey, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
- May 11: Trump tells NBC’s Lester Holt that he fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. “In fact when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said ‘you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'”
- August: Trump calls Sen. Richard Burr, the chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, to press him to end its investigation of Russian interference into the election. “I hope you can conclude this as quickly as possible,” Burr describes him saying.
- Aug. 7: Trump reportedly calls Sen. Thom Tillis to express his displeasure with a bill Tillis is working on that would make it more difficult for the president to fire the special counsel.
- Aug. 9: According to Republicans briefed on the conversation, in an angry phone call with Mitch McConnell, Trump complains that the Senate majority leader is not doing enough to protect him from the Russia investigation.
- Aug. 30: On Air Force One, Trump presses Sen. Roy Blunt, another member of the Intelligence Committee, to wrap up the Russia probe quickly according to a Republican official.
We should also keep in mind that there may well be other instances in which Trump took steps to obstruct the investigation that we don’t know about yet.
Thursday, in closed-door testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions refused to answer the question of whether Trump pressured him to hinder the probe, according to Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.). Trump has been quite candid about his anger at Sessions for recusing himself from the Russia matter, since that recusal means that Sessions is unable to shut down the investigation. Given all the other people he has pressured on Russia, it would be shocking if Trump hadn’t pressed Sessions to do so, his recusal notwithstanding.
But here’s what we know as of now. Trump tried very hard to shut down not just the Russia investigation in general, but the investigation of Flynn specifically. Not only did he fail, but now Flynn is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. Given all the crimes Flynn may have committed, Mueller would only have sought that cooperation if Flynn had meaningful information to offer on someone higher up than him. We’re only beginning to get hints of what that information is and who it relates to. But I’m guessing Flynn has plenty of interesting stories to tell.