Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn appears to have come full circle, if you read carefully the sentencing memo released Tuesday by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III recommending that Flynn serve no jail time despite pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
The Trump campaign warrior of 2016 who led chants of “lock her up” deriding Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and then lied to the FBI after President Trump’s inauguration about his secret contacts with Russia, once again became an “exemplary” figure whose example, Mueller says, encouraged others to do the right thing.
“The defendant deserves credit for accepting responsibility in a timely fashion and substantially assisting the government,” writes Mueller in the sentencing memo. Mueller praises Flynn’s “early cooperation” as a spur to others. “The defendant’s decision to plead guilty and cooperate likely affected the decisions of related firsthand witnesses to be forthcoming [with the special counsel’s office] and cooperate,” the memo notes.
This denouement, in which Flynn is once again on the side of law enforcement and truth-telling, is fascinating to me as someone who followed his career for more than a decade and remembers hearing his blisteringly honest briefings as a combat intelligence commander in Afghanistan. Flynn became disoriented during his years in Trump’s orbit, but the sentencing memo suggests that he recovered his balance and sense of duty after Mueller began his investigation.
There’s a bizarre irony here. Trump pleaded with James B. Comey, the FBI director at the time the investigation of Flynn began, to consider “letting this go.” That was a grossly improper attempt to interfere with the investigation and prosecution of Flynn’s false statements. How strange that it was Mueller, in the end, who decided in effect to “let this go” by recommending no jail time, after the investigation had run its course and Flynn had pleaded guilty and cooperated.
The case interests me for a personal reason, too. The sentencing memo cites a column I wrote on Jan. 12, 2017, as the first public mention that Flynn had talked with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 29, 2016, the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions to punish Russia for its meddling on Trump’s behalf in the 2016 presidential election.
“The Post story queried whether the defendant’s actions violated the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from corresponding with a foreign government with the intent to influence the conduct of that foreign government regarding disputes with the United States,” the memo notes.
A buried paragraph in an op-ed column started Flynn’s cascade of problems: He lied about his contacts with Kislyak in an FBI interview on Jan. 24, 2017, and was fired as national security adviser, charged with lying by Mueller and pleaded guilty. The odd part was that the seeming trigger for these big consequences was the relatively small matter of the Logan Act, an 18th-century heirloom that has never been enforced with criminal prosecution in modern times. I guess it’s one more example of the abiding lesson of political scandals that it’s not the initial activity that gets people in real trouble, but the attempt to cover it up.
A final symmetry in the Flynn redemption tale is that, by his account, something like this happened to him before, when he was a hell-raising kid in Rhode Island. He explains in his 2016 memoir, “The Field of Fight,” that he got caught doing some “serious and unlawful activity” and had to spend a night in the state boys’ penitentiary and serve a year’s probation.
What saved him, Flynn writes, was that he was held accountable for his misdeeds. “As fate would have it . . . my father’s steel hands and mother’s piercing eyes of disappointment turned my downward trajectory of crash and burn into a reservoir of opportunity for the rest of my life.”
That’s the way the story is supposed to go: from prosecution to confession and eventual absolution and rehabilitation. And that, by Mueller’s account, is precisely what happened in the case of Flynn.