The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump put his presidency at risk to defend Michael Flynn. What happened?

President Trump has a history of defending his former national security adviser Michael Flynn. (Video: The Washington Post)

For the second time in a little over a month, the White House on Friday was forced to distance itself from a person implicated in criminal activity on President Trump’s behalf.

“Today, Michael Flynn, a former National Security Adviser at the White House for 25 days during the Trump administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI,” Trump’s lawyer wrote in a statement.

The implication is that Flynn was removed from the president, just some guy who’d worked for Obama and who temporarily served Trump in the White House. It’s nonsense both because of what we know about Flynn’s time with Trump,  and because of how hard Trump once fought to defend his friend.

Flynn was one of the first passengers on the Trump train. By late February 2016, he was reported to be advising Trump’s presidential campaign; over the course of the next nine months he became a critical and visible surrogate for the candidate. When Trump was criticized for a lack of endorsements from the national security establishment, he had a Flynn card, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency — under Barack Obama, no less! — who would advocate on his behalf.

Flynn was awarded time to speak during the Republican convention that July. He gave a fiery speech, excoriating Hillary Clinton as having committed criminal acts and joining the crowd in a chant of “lock her up.”

“If I did a tenth of what she did,” Flynn said of Clinton during that speech, “I would be in jail today!”

The criminal charges revealed Friday morning moved Flynn significantly closer to that fate. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III unveiled documents showing that Flynn lied to federal investigators about his interactions with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, during the presidential transition period last December. It’s the most significant criminal charge made public by Mueller to date, targeting a senior campaign and administration official. (It was only after details of his conversations with Kislyak were made public that Flynn was ousted from the White House.)

Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Dec. 1 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

There are any number of indications that Flynn agreed to the charges from Mueller in exchange for testifying against other senior members of the transition team or administration — perhaps including Trump. The statement of offense indicates that Flynn lied about two conversations with Kislyak. One came after speaking with a “senior official” from the transition team about sanctions the Obama administration was imposing because of Russian meddling in the election. The other involved a “very senior member” of the transition team, who asked him to call international leaders about a U.N. vote. It also indicates that the details in the documents “do not constitute all of the facts known to the parties.” There’s more to tell.

This is a remarkable rift between Flynn and Trump that would have seemed unlikely at the beginning of the year.

Mueller was appointed because Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — acting in Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s stead after Sessions recused himself because of his own interactions with Kislyak — apparently thought that Trump’s firing of former FBI director James B. Comey indicated a need to separate the investigation into Russian meddling from Trump’s control.

Flynn was central to Trump’s concerns about the Russia investigation and Comey. Comey has testified under oath that, during a meeting in the Oval Office on Feb. 14, Trump pressured him to drop his investigation of Flynn, who’d left the administration the previous day.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey quoted Trump as saying during testimony before Congress in June.

Comey and the FBI didn’t let Flynn go, as is now obvious.

It was the revelation of this conversation by the New York Times in May that spurred Rosenstein to appoint Mueller. Put another way: There’s a direct line between Trump wanting to protect Flynn and the appointment of the man who eventually may have flipped Flynn to work against Trump.

The day after his Valentine’s Day conversation with Comey, Trump made a similar case during a news conference in the White House. Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — on whose behalf Flynn was asked to make those calls about the U.N. vote by that “very senior” transition team member — Trump described Flynn as “wonderful.”

“Michael Flynn, General Flynn is a wonderful man,” Trump said. “I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media — as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.”

“I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated, and the documents and papers that were illegally — I stress that — illegally leaked,” he added, referring to Post reporting about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak.

By late March, Flynn’s attorney was floating the idea of requesting immunity in exchange for testifying in front of Congress. Trump was publicly supportive of the idea.

He’d reached his fill of the FBI’s investigation, though. He fired Comey in early May, and later explained why to NBC’s Lester Holt.

“I was going to fire Comey, knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said. “And 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 having lost an election that they should have won.”

Holt also asked why Trump waited two weeks between the Justice Department informing the White House that Flynn had communicated with Kislyak about sanctions and when he was fired — while Comey was fired quickly, with a trumped-up justification that focused on his handling of the Hillary Clinton email server.

“This man has served for many years,” Trump explained. “He’s a general. He’s a, in my opinion, a very good person. I believe that it would be very unfair to hear from somebody who we don’t even know and immediately run out and fire a general.”

It’s clear, though, that Trump’s attitude toward Flynn had already shifted.

“Of course,” Trump also said, “it’s a total phony story. In fact, I just heard where General Flynn got his clearance from the Obama administration” — a preview of the argument used by his lawyer Cobb on Friday.

Why Flynn may have agreed to work with Mueller’s team in its investigation isn’t totally clear, but ABC News reports one reason: “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.”

For whatever reason, Trump defended Michael Flynn well after there was obvious utility in doing so. Trump may have known that having Flynn as an ally was preferable to having him as an opponent . . . a role which Flynn may now have taken on, according to what we learned Friday.