The big takeaway from special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s new sentencing memo for Michael Flynn is that it underscores how little we know about what Mueller has learned. It says President Trump’s former national security adviser has provided “substantial assistance” to Mueller, notes that he sat for 19 interviews and says he’s cooperating not just with the Russia probe but also with a separate criminal investigation that is not named.
But, by tantalizingly hinting at just how much help Flynn may have provided — and by sketching out the barest outline of the areas in which he offered this help — the memo also underscores the likelihood that Trump obstructed justice when he leaned on then-FBI Director James B. Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn.
In arguing that Flynn should not have to do prison time, Mueller’s memo notes that in January 2017, Flynn lied to the FBI — which was investigating whether the Trump campaign had conspired with Russian sabotage of our election. Flynn had falsely claimed he did not have a conversation with the Russian ambassador during the transition, when in fact he had asked Russia (in potential violation of the law) not to escalate the situation in response to the Obama administration’s sanctions.
Flynn lied to Vice President Pence and others about this conversation, leading Pence to make false public statements about it. The White House learned of the lie from the acting attorney general, who said Flynn was now vulnerable to blackmail, and Trump fired Flynn 18 days later. Flynn subsequently pleaded guilty in December of 2017 to lying to the FBI.
Mueller’s memo contains a section claiming Flynn provided “firsthand information” about “interactions” between the Trump “transition team and Russian government officials.” It’s not clear who this refers to other than Flynn, but the memo does say Flynn provided information on his own contacts with Russia, noting, significantly, that Flynn represented the “transition team” at the time. The memo then claims Flynn provided “useful information.” But much of it is redacted, suggesting Flynn has told Mueller a lot about this chain of events.
It seems like ancient history now, but Comey’s claim that Trump pressured him over Flynn is worth revisiting in light of these new revelations.
Revisiting the Comey memos
As you’ll recall, Comey kept contemporaneous memos of his early conversations with Trump. One of those memos recounted that in February 2017, Comey met with Trump and others in the Oval Office. Trump asked everyone but Comey to leave, and then repeatedly told Comey that Flynn “hadn’t done anything wrong” in his phone call to the Russian ambassador. The conversation turned to other topics. Then this happened:
He then returned to the topic of Mike Flynn, saying that Flynn is a good guy, and has been through a lot. He misled the Vice President but he didn’t do anything wrong in the call. He said, “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.” I replied by saying, “I agree he is a good guy,” but said no more.
We have now learned that Flynn provided Mueller a great deal of information about this call and about the events surrounding it. This increases the likelihood that Trump leaned on Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn not because he thought Flynn was a “good guy” but because Trump knew Flynn had a lot to disclose on these matters. Which in turn provides a motive for Trump to try to derail the investigation into him, perhaps with “corrupt intent.”
“This memo suggests Flynn has provided a great deal of information about Russian contacts with members of Trump’s team,” Randall D. Eliason, who teaches white-collar crime at George Washington University Law School, told me. “The more Flynn knew about those contacts, the more motive the president would have had to try to keep that information under wraps by getting the Flynn investigation shut down.”
What Flynn might have testified about
We don’t know what Flynn told Mueller, but let’s go over some unknowns here that Flynn might have addressed. As The Post notes, Flynn’s original guilty plea did not say whether Trump told Flynn to call the Russian ambassador (which Trump has denied) and did not explain why Flynn lied to the FBI to begin with.
Also, don’t forget that Trump buffoonishly tweeted that he “had to” fire Flynn because he lied to the FBI, which would suggest that Trump knew this at the time. (Flynn pleaded guilty to it months later.) Trump’s lawyer hastily walked that back, but what did Trump know at the time, both about Flynn’s contact with Russia and about Flynn’s lie to the FBI about it? What did he tell Flynn?
Recall that we already know that Mueller has been scrutinizing the period of 18 days that passed between Flynn’s lie and his firing over it — for answers to precisely these questions. Ya think Flynn might have some of those answers?
In a good opinion piece, Bloomberg Opinion executive editor Timothy L. O’Brien points to other big unknowns. Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner also had contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition and also may have directed Flynn to communicate with him. (Note that Mueller’s memo does vaguely reference multiple transition team contacts with Russia.) As O’Brien points out, if Kushner offered a different account of these events than Flynn has, Kushner “may have to start scrambling.”
We don’t yet know what’s under those redactions. But it’s likely that they are concealing a lot of information — shared by Flynn — that Trump did not want the FBI to know about. Which might have given Trump good reason (in his mind, anyway) to try to get the FBI to stop looking into it.