The White House has fired a warning shot in Michael Flynn's direction, with The Washington Post's Carol D. Leonnig reporting that it plans to label him a liar who can't be trusted if he makes claims against it.
The strategy isn't that shocking — Trump seemed to preview it with that fateful tweet, and his lawyers have hinted in this direction too — though it makes it crystal-clear that Trump's loyalty to his former national security adviser is far from absolute.
I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 2, 2017
But if there is one big hole in the strategy, it's precisely that: Trump's demonstrated loyalty.
Basically, Trump's legal team is preparing to argue that Flynn isn't a credible witness because he lied to investigators. Yet this particular lie was one that Trump himself was well aware of — by his team's own accounts — and didn't seem all that perturbed by. And it's actually only part of a large volume of red flags on Flynn that the White House and Trump himself seemed to dismiss, even after Flynn was fired.
Here's a quick recap (with an assist from Philip Bump's great Flynn timeline):
- Flynn informed White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 4 that he was under investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for the Turkish government.
- Then-acting attorney general Sally Yates informed McGahn on Jan. 26 that Flynn had misrepresented his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to the White House, by saying the two of them didn't discuss sanctions. Then-Press Secretary Sean Spicer said McGahn shared this information with Trump “immediately.” Despite this, Flynn would again deny having discussed sanctions with Kislyak in an interview with The Post on Feb. 8.
- Flynn in March belatedly disclosed fees and expenses paid to him by Russia-related entities, including travel paid for by Russian government-backed television station RT.
After the first two, Trump sought leniency for Flynn from FBI Director James B. Comey during a Feb. 14 meeting, according to Comey's contemporaneous notes. (Trump recently denied this.) He would also go on in late March to try to get CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to intervene with the FBI, according to what Pompeo and Coats told associates.
Trump has also gone to bat for Flynn's character publicly. As Leonnig noted in her report, Trump called Flynn a “wonderful man” after firing him in February. He said earlier this month that what prosecutors did to Flynn was “very unfair” and that he had “led a very strong life.” He told NBC News in May that Flynn was a “very good person.” He tweeted in March that Flynn should ask for immunity because the investigation was a “witch hunt.” And he has told aides repeatedly that he regretted firing Flynn, as The Post's Josh Dawsey reported back in May for Politico.
Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 31, 2017
None of this paints the picture of a president who thinks Flynn lacks credibility or character; instead, Trump has repeatedly testified in the court of public opinion in support of Flynn's character — even doing so after learning about many of his alleged misdeeds. As recently as earlier this month when Flynn cut a deal with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigators, Trump played down the allegations against Flynn.
We've seen before how Trump's past comments and tweets can come back to bite him during legal proceedings. Any effort to impugn Flynn's character should be undercut by Trump's repeated public defenses of that very same character.
The question from there is why did Trump keep defending Flynn? If he didn't truly think Flynn was a person of solid character, what's the alternative? That's the scariest prospect for the White House.