— President Trump, in a tweet, May 17, 2019
The president tweeted that he did not realize Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, had been under investigation on suspicion of being a Russian agent and that he should have been warned.
This is a puzzling complaint. First, a report issued by a Republican-led House committee — often touted by Trump — disclosed in 2018 that there had been an ongoing counterintelligence investigation of Flynn. So that’s not new information. Second, Trump was warned by President Barack Obama not to hire Flynn — and the report by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III says that warning actually soured Trump on Flynn.
Here’s what we know about the warnings Trump received about Flynn. In a narrow, technical sense, Trump was not warned that Flynn was being investigated as a possible Russian agent. But there were plenty of other flashing lights that Flynn was trouble — warnings that Trump chose to ignore.
Flynn was fired on Feb. 13, 2017, in the opening weeks of the Trump administration, after he supposedly misled Vice President Pence about a conversation with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn had claimed he had not requested the Russian government decline to respond to sanctions imposed by Obama, when, in fact, he had delivered that message and Russia had agreed. (The whole story can be seen in our compelling video above.)
Mueller secured Flynn’s guilty plea to lying to FBI agents, who, on Jan. 24, had interviewed him about his conversations with Kislyak. U.S. officials had become aware of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations because of intelligence monitoring of Kislyak, as they tried to determine why Russia had decided not to retaliate in response to the sanctions.
The House Intelligence Committee report detailed that Flynn had already been the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. It was possibly sparked by his 2015 attendance at the 10th anniversary gala in Moscow for the state-sponsored Russian television network RT, for which he earned $45,000 and was seated next to President Vladimir Putin. The Mueller report indicates a key focus was Flynn’s relationship with Kislyak: “Previously, the FBI had opened an investigation of Flynn based on his relationship with the Russian government. Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak became a key component of that investigation.”
The House committee report says the FBI had been prepared to end the counterintelligence investigation against Flynn, but then the conversation with Kislyak was discovered.
Then-FBI Director James B. Comey “testified that he authorized the closure of the CI [counterintelligence] investigation into General Flynn by late December 2016; however, the investigation was kept open due to the public discrepancy surrounding General Flynn’s communications with Ambassador Kislyak,” the House report said. “Deputy Director [Andrew] McCabe stated that, ‘We really had not substantiated anything particularly significant against General Flynn,’ but did not recall that a closure of the CI investigation was imminent.”
The House report faulted that “the Trump campaign was not notified that members of the campaign were potential counterintelligence concerns,” even after Trump had become the Republican nominee and started to receive intelligence briefings.
But who accompanied Trump to those briefings? Flynn — who presumably did not know he was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation. Trump responded to his first classified briefing by politicizing it, declaring he could tell that government officials were unhappy with Obama for not following expert advice.
But Trump did get a warning not to hire Flynn from Obama — advice that the Mueller report, in a footnote, says began to gnaw at him and eventually soured the president on Flynn.
“Several witnesses said that the President was unhappy with Flynn for other reasons at this time. [Senior adviser Stephen] Bannon said that Flynn’s standing with the President was not good by December 2016. The President-Elect had concerns because President Obama had warned him about Flynn shortly after the election. (President Obama’s comment sat with President-Elect Trump more than [press aide Hope] Hicks expected). [White House chief of staff Reince] Priebus said that the President had become unhappy with Flynn even before the story of his calls with Kislyak broke and had become so upset with Flynn that he would not look at him during intelligence briefings. Hicks said that the President thought Flynn had bad judgment and was angered by tweets sent by Flynn and his son, and she described Flynn as “being on thin ice” by early February 2017.”
The Washington Post reported in May 2017 that Obama raised his concern about Flynn on Nov. 10, two days after the election, when Trump visited the White House and met with Obama in the Oval Office. One official told The Post that Obama had not planned to raise concerns about Flynn, but “as the two men discussed personnel, Obama expressed caution about putting Flynn in a high-level position. There were multiple reasons, the former official said, including Flynn’s performance leading the DIA, his attendance at the RT event in Moscow, and his controversial statements on Islam.”
The White House at the time claimed Trump dismissed Obama’s advice because Obama had fired Flynn as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and Flynn had turned critical of Obama. But we now know Obama’s warning had actually troubled Trump, though he chose not to act on it.
There were other warning signs:
- Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent Pence a letter on Nov. 18, 2016, requesting more information about the potential conflicts of interest posed by Flynn’s lobbying work for Turkey, revealed by reports in the Daily Caller and Politico.
- Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R), who briefly served as Trump’s transition director, claims in his memoir “Let Me Finish” that “against my strong and heated advice, Donald had appointed that walking car crash to be his national security advisor.”
- Flynn himself told White House counsel Donald McGahn on Jan. 4, 2017, that he was the subject of a federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign. As part of his plea agreement with the special counsel, Flynn admitted to making false statements and omissions in connection with federal filings about his lobbying work for Turkey, but he was not charged.
The Pinocchio Test
The president rarely takes responsibility for his actions. In this instance, he tries to pin on the FBI his own failure to heed warnings and vet carefully his personnel. Whether the FBI would have been comfortable telling a presidential candidate that the aide sitting by his side was the subject of a counterintelligence inquiry is an interesting question. The House Republican report suggested that it should have been considered.
Whether Trump would have accepted such an explicit warning is open to question. He has been deeply skeptical of intelligence that did not conform to his views. In any case, it’s misleading to frame the lack of a warning about Flynn in such a narrow fashion. There were many warning signs.
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