Hashtags. Tweets. Speeches. A book foreword.
Friends and family of former national security adviser Michael Flynn are waging a campaign to try to exonerate the retired lieutenant general — and, possibly, land him a presidential pardon.
The push comes as Flynn himself — who in December pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — is also trying to rehabilitate his public image, including appearing with a long-shot Republican House candidate, delivering a private foreign policy speech in Manhattan and writing the foreword to a friend’s self-published manifesto supporting President Trump.
But the effort, largely based on social media, has at times put Flynn’s advocates, and occasionally Flynn, at odds with his own legal team, which believes that any public attention to Flynn’s case is not helpful as he awaits sentencing. It has counseled that he and his family should remain quiet.
In December, for instance, one of Flynn’s brothers, Joseph Flynn, posted a tweet urging the president to pardon his former adviser. “About time you pardoned General Flynn who has taken the biggest fall for all of you given the illegitimacy of this confessed crime in the wake of all this corruption,” he wrote.
But the missive raised concerns among Flynn’s legal team at Covington & Burling — where Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner works — and shortly thereafter Joseph Flynn deleted the tweet and replaced it with a more respectful plea on his brother’s behalf.
Flynn was also approached, at one point, with a lucrative offer to write a book, but he declined after discussing the idea with his legal team.
Kelner, who declined to comment, has urged Flynn to keep a low profile and to not speak about the case, a Flynn confidant said, with the goal of avoiding a prison sentence and placating special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
“Strictly speaking, a family member doesn’t necessarily implicate the person who has pleaded guilty,” said Barak Cohen, the litigation lead for Perkins Coie. “But prosecutors, for better or worse, are human beings. If they think someone is saying something that undercuts the guilty plea, that could have a negative consequence for the defendant.”
Flynn was one of the first Trump associates to plead guilty in Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and he began cooperating with the ongoing investigation. He was initially fired from his top White House post in February 2017, after misleading Vice President Pence about his contacts with Kislyak.
But since his West Wing departure and guilty plea, Flynn has become something of a cause celebre among the conservative right and a symbol of what the president’s most ardent supporters contend is a conspiracy to undermine his administration by law enforcement and intelligence officials hostile to his presidency.
While the defense of the retired general started on the fringes of the president’s support network, the Flynn exoneration movement has picked up steam in recent weeks. His advocates have seized on recent comments by former FBI director James B. Comey during his book tour that he doesn’t recall telling lawmakers that FBI agents did not think Flynn was lying intentionally when he was first interviewed about his conversation with Kislyak.
Their effort got a boost earlier this month when Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) took issue with Comey’s statement in a letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who is overseeing the Russia probe, and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
Grassley wrote that when Comey met with committee members on March 15, 2017, “Comey led us to believe during that briefing that the agents who interviewed Flynn did not believe he intentionally lied about his conversation with the Ambassador and that the Justice Department was unlikely to prosecute him for false statements made in that interview.”
“In the months since then,” Grassley added, “the Special Counsel obtained a guilty plea from Lt. General Flynn for that precise alleged conduct.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board chimed in two days later, writing: “The question is whether special counsel Robert S. Mueller III pressured him to plead to a crime he didn’t commit.”
While Flynn’s supporters have focused on his guilty plea regarding lying to the FBI, the special counsel’s office made clear in a court filing at the time that he was also being investigated for other possible crimes before the deal was struck, including improperly lobbying for Turkey.
The White House has taken a mixed stance toward Flynn. Trump has expressed solidarity with him, both publicly and privately. In a tweet last month, his most recent to mention Flynn, he lamented his former adviser’s life being “totally destroyed.”
But at one point late last year, when it looked as though Flynn might accuse Trump or people close to the president of possible wrongdoing, the president’s own legal team readied an attack on his credibility. And many White House aides have privately expressed little sympathy for him, saying choosing Flynn for the top national security post was a mistake from the very beginning. The president, at times, has also called the general “very controversial,” according to a senior administration official.
Trump has not publicly ruled out pardoning Flynn. “I don’t want to talk about pardons for Michael Flynn yet,” the president told reporters in December. “We’ll see what happens.”
As the investigation heated up in 2017, John Dowd, who until recently was one of Trump’s personal lawyers, floated the idea of pardons to lawyers for both Flynn and Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who Mueller indicted — calls that startled their respective counsels. Trump has also occasionally asked advisers in the West Wing about pardons.
One Trump confidant envisioned a scenario in which — if the president is vindicated by the result of Mueller’s probe — he might issue across-the-board pardons to all his former campaign aides entangled in the investigation’s tentacles.
Barry Bennett, a former Trump campaign aide, offered a similar analysis. “I think if the investigation turns up zero, there is a chance everyone gets pardoned, just to make a point,” he said.
Despite warnings from Flynn’s lawyers, some of his allies and family members have persisted. At one point, Mueller’s investigators warned Flynn’s lawyers that they planned to indict him and also could charge his son, Michael Flynn Jr. — and many believe Flynn’s decision to take a plea deal and cooperate with the probe was driven by his desire to protect his son.
Flynn Jr. has denied this was a motivation for his father and remains an active presence on social media, often sending missives defending the elder Flynn and questioning the Mueller team’s investigation.
“Is it not possible he just plead guilty because of the financial burden it created and is creating on our family??” Flynn Jr. wrote in one tweet.
In another, he both chastised the media and contradicted the White House’s official version of events — that Flynn was fired for misleading Pence — in writing that his father never lied. “W everything going on during the transition, isnt possible that it was a miscommunication btw 2 people that couldve been resolved w/o all the media hoopla?”he wrote.
Pasquale Scopelliti, a self-described business coach in Charlottesville who befriended Flynn during the 2016 campaign, is helping lead an effort on social media to clear Flynn’s name. Flynn wrote the foreword to an e-book, “The MAGA Manifesto,” being self-published by Scopelliti
Scopelliti is still pushing for a pardon but noted that Flynn’s brother, who was initially engaged in the idea, seems to have backed off the idea slightly.
“I think he realized it was maybe not the best option,” Scopelliti said. “I don’t believe the family takes a position on it now.”
The campaign to repair Flynn’s reputation has thrust the former national security adviser — at times willingly — into the spotlight. In March, when Flynn appeared in La Quinta, Calif., to endorse Omar Navarro, a 29-year-old Republican hoping to defeat 14-term Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) in a largely Democratic district, he seemed to obliquely refer to his current legal morass.
“I’m not here to complain about who has done me wrong or how unfair I’ve been treated or how unfair the entire process has been,” Flynn said. “It is what it is, and my previous statements can stand for themselves.”
Joseph Flynn, meanwhile, described his brother’s plea deal as necessary after an arduous and expensive process — and said it would end a difficult chapter in an otherwise remarkable life of military service.
Still, Joseph Flynn stressed that his statements should not be seen as representing his brother’s opinion. He added that his brother does not divulge details of his legal strategy with him.
“We do not discuss his legal case,” Joseph Flynn said, referring to his brother. “There was no conspiracy among the Flynns about a pardon.” One lawyer who also represented a person in the Mueller investigation and occasionally talks to Kelner spoke of the situation with something close to wonder: “If Michael Flynn gets out of this with no prison, it would be a remarkable thing.”
Among his fellow lawyers involved in the case, Kelner’s handling of the Flynn matter has been viewed as “somewhat remarkable,” according to one. Long before Flynn was indicted, two of the lawyers said, it was all but a preordained conclusion in Washington legal circles that he would face charges and, potentially, a long prison sentence. Now, some think Flynn might escape any jail time at all.
But the idea of a pardon still looms large. Earlier this year, Eric H. Holder Jr., former attorney general under President Barack Obama and a partner at Kelner’s firm, spoke out against Trump’s pardon for Joe Arpaio, the controversial former sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz.
“It was a misuse of the process,” Holder said, in comments that seemed designed to apply both to Arpaio’s specific case, but also to the prospect of a future pardon for his law firm partner’s client: Flynn.
Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.