The juiciest possible meaning of a decision by Michael Flynn's legal team to cut off communication with President Trump's team is that Flynn, the former White House national security adviser, is about to roll over and provide incriminating information about Trump or members of his inner circle to special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that “the notification led Mr. Trump's lawyers to believe that Mr. Flynn — who, along with his son, is seen as having significant criminal exposure — has, at the least, begun discussions with Mr. Mueller about cooperating.” That's a logical conclusion because, as the Times's Michael S. Schmidt, Matt Apuzzo and Maggie Haberman explained, “it is unethical for lawyers to work together when one client is cooperating with prosecutors and another is still under investigation.”
Norman Eisen — President Barack Obama's White House ethics czar, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution — tweeted that personal experience with Mueller leads him to believe that Flynn could implicate Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner or even the president himself.
Trump should be nervous, but he need not hit the panic button yet. Here's why:
As The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig and Rosalind S. Helderman pointed out in their report on Flynn's move, “even if Flynn has begun discussions with Mueller's office, there is no guarantee he will ultimately reach a deal with prosecutors.” Mueller might demand more information than Flynn is willing to give or Flynn's knowledge might prove unworthy of favorable treatment by Mueller. It's hard to know whether a deal involving Flynn could hurt Trump when we don't know whether there will be a deal at all.
Could Flynn merely offer incriminating information about himself, in an effort to protect his son? Not likely, said Jeffrey S. Jacobovitz, a partner at Arnall Golden Gregory in Washington who specializes in white-collar criminal defense.
“I don't think Mueller would offer him a deal, if that were the case,” Jacobovitz told me. “I think it would have to be some higher-ups that Flynn would be able to provide information about.”
Someone higher up does not necessarily mean the president or a member of his family, however. An alternative target: Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, against whom Mueller already has secured an indictment.
“That would be valuable because Manafort, at this point, is still going to trial,” Jacobovitz said, adding that Mueller “would take all the help he can get” in that case.
Trump has effectively turned his back on Manafort. On the day Mueller announced charges against the man who once headed Trump's campaign, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters that the indictment “has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president's campaign or campaign activity.”
Don't expect the president to feel too bad if the result of Flynn's possible cooperation with Mueller is more trouble for Manafort.
It also is possible that Flynn could spill damaging information about Trump that is unrelated to collusion with Russia.
“It could be related to obstruction,” Jacobovitz told me, pointing to James B. Comey's claim that Trump asked the then-director of the FBI to drop its investigation of Flynn.
That would be bad for the president, but it would not indicate that his campaign aided Russia's effort to meddle in the presidential election. It would not, in other words, undermine the validity of Trump's victory, which seems to be Trump's primary concern about Mueller's probe.