At a White House news conference on Feb. 16, NBC's Kristen Welker posed the following question to President Trump: “Did you direct Mike Flynn to discuss the sanctions with the Russian ambassador?”
Welker was referring to a pre-inauguration conversation between Flynn, who would become Trump's national security adviser, and Sergey Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States. The Washington Post had reported a week before the news conference that, contrary to public denials, Flynn and Kislyak did in fact talk about diplomatic penalties — a no-no because Flynn was not yet a government official, and the Logan Act prohibits private citizens from meddling in foreign affairs.
Trump issued a full denial: “No, I didn’t. No, I didn’t.”
On Friday, however, as Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Kislyak, ABC News reported that Flynn is prepared to testify that Trump did direct him to connect with Russia.
The indictment unsealed Friday by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is less specific, saying that “a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” steered Flynn. But, as NBC's Chuck Todd reasoned, Trump is one of the few people who could have been calling the shots.
The key folks in the transition who Flynn would have been “directed by” were: Mike Pence (who was running the transition), Jared Kushner (who was basically the shadow transition chief on foreign policy and natsec) Priebus who had already been named CoS and of course Trump.
— Chuck Todd (@chucktodd) December 1, 2017
If it turns out that Flynn was acting at Trump's direction, making the president's February denial false, then it will become extremely difficult for the White House to argue, as it did Friday, that “nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
Another Flynn-related statement Trump made in February has aged rather poorly. Eight days after the news conference, in an address to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Trump railed against the Post report that had revealed the nature of Flynn's contact with Kislyak:
They have no sources. They just make 'em up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said, “Nine people have confirmed.” There're no nine people. I don't believe there was one or two people. Nine people. And I said, “Give me a break.” Because I know the people. I know who they talk to. There were no nine people.
But they say “nine people.” And somebody reads it, and they think: “Oh, nine people. They have nine sources.” They make up sources. They're very dishonest people.
Trump tacitly acknowledged that the report was true when he fired Flynn, though the president publicly attributed the decision to Flynn's having misled Vice President Pence about the conversation with Kislyak. Now that Flynn has admitted he discussed sanctions with Kislyak and lied about that fact to the FBI on Jan. 24, there is no doubt: The report Trump disputed 10 months ago was accurate.
As The Fix's Amber Phillips has pointed out, “The Logan Act has been around since 1799, and no one has ever been convicted of violating it.” In Trump's case, we're talking about directing Flynn to engage in talks that might have violated the Logan Act, as opposed to Trump committing a violation himself, giving the president a degree of separation from violating a law that has never yielded a conviction.
Yet if Flynn testifies that he operated on Trump's order, Trump might have to explain why he was so determined to cover up his involvement.