Once again, House Republicans have carefully laid a rake on the ground, dramatically brought their foot down on it and smashed themselves in the face. I speak, of course, about the release of the memos that then-FBI director James B. Comey wrote in early 2017 describing his meetings with President Trump and other administration officials.
Those memos have raised a whole new set of very uncomfortable questions for the president. I want to focus on one of those questions, a new twist involving former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
First, let’s look at Comey’s account of a meeting he had on Feb. 8, 2017 with Priebus:
He then asked me if this was a “private conversation.” I replied that it was. He then said he wanted to ask me a question and I could decide whether it was appropriate to answer. He then asked, “Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?” I paused for a few seconds and then said that I would answer here, but that this illustrated the kind of question that had to be asked and answered through established channels. I said the answer [redacted]”
To this point, we have never heard that there might have been a FISA warrant issued to surveil Flynn. We don’t know whether the answer is yes or no, due to the redaction, but we now know it’s possible. What ultimately led to Flynn’s firing was that he was picked up on surveillance of Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period, reportedly urging Russia not to respond to sanctions the Obama administration was imposing, in violation of the principle that the country is only supposed to have one administration and one foreign policy at a time.
To see why Priebus asking Comey about Flynn is important, you have to understand the chronology. The underlying question is whether Trump’s firing of Comey constituted obstruction of justice, which has a great deal to do with Flynn. Let’s lay this out:
Jan. 15, 2017: Vice president-elect Mike Pence goes on “Face the Nation” and denies that Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russians; two days before, spokesperson Sean Spicer issued a similar denial.
Jan. 24: Flynn is interviewed by the FBI, and falsely tells them that he and Kislyak only exchanged pleasantries and did not discuss substantive matters. The FBI knows this is false, because they are monitoring Kislyak’s communications and heard the two men’s conversation.
Jan. 26: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informs White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn has told a lie to administration officials, a lie the vice president repeated in public. She is concerned because, since the Russians know Flynn has lied, they could use that information to blackmail him. She informs McGahn that Flynn has been interviewed by the FBI, but says that she didn’t share the contents of the interview, leaving open the question of whether Flynn lied to the investigators. A CNN report will later say that McGahn concluded Flynn lied to the FBI and informed the president, but the White House denies this.
Jan. 30: Trump fires Yates.
Feb. 8: According to Comey’s memos, Priebus asks him whether Flynn is under a FISA warrant, i.e. is under surveillance.
Feb. 13: Flynn resigns under pressure.
Feb. 14: According to Comey’s memos, at the end of an Oval Office meeting, Trump orders everyone except Comey out of the room. Trump asks Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go,” the president says to him.
Feb. 14: The New York Times publishes a story reporting that multiple Trump campaign officials had contacts with Russians during the 2016 campaign.
Feb. 15: Priebus reaches out to Comey and his then-deputy Andrew McCabe and asks them to say publicly that the Times story is false. Comey refuses.
March 22: Trump asks Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and Natioanl Security Agency director Mike Rogers to intervene with Comey and urge him to lay off Flynn. As far as we know, they take no action.
May 9: Trump fires Comey.
If we accept Comey’s account of the Feb. 14 meeting, then Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn after members of his staff knew he had lied to the vice president about it, and might even have had reason to believe he had lied to the FBI as well. Trump claims that all he knew when he fired Flynn was that Flynn had lied to Pence. But on Dec. 2, Trump tweeted, “I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI.”
After everyone realized that the tweet meant Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation knowing that Flynn had committed a crime — which could be obstruction of justice — Trump’s lawyer, John Dowd, came forward and claimed that he had authored Trump’s tweet. This was utterly ludicrous.
What’s new here is Priebus’s involvement. The fact that he asked Comey on Feb. 8 about whether Flynn was under surveillance suggests he may have had reason to believe that Flynn’s transgressions were more serious than just lying to Pence.
If that’s true, then the chances that Trump didn’t know that Flynn had done something extremely serious are shrinking. The White House counsel reportedly knew that Flynn lied to the FBI. The White House chief of staff saw fit to ask the FBI director whether Flynn was under surveillance, from which he very well might have concluded something similar. And after all that, Trump asked Comey to let Flynn go.
Robert S. Mueller III’s team interviewed Priebus in October, and you can bet they were extremely interested to find out what Priebus knew and what he told the president. And Flynn has flipped and is cooperating with Mueller. One way or another, the truth is going to come out.