Lawyers for former national security adviser Michael Flynn argued this week that he should avoid prison time for lying to the FBI because of the retired U.S. Army general’s “exceptional record of military service” and “genuine contrition for the uncharacteristic error in judgment.”
They also suggested that Flynn had been duped by the FBI.
A pair of agents who questioned Flynn at the White House in January 2017 “did not provide General Flynn with a warning of the penalties for making a false statement,” the lawyers said in a pre-sentencing filing. Flynn was “unguarded,” his attorneys said, and mistakenly “saw the FBI agents as allies.”
In reality, there was no ambush. Flynn knew the FBI was investigating his secret conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the final days of 2016. And his deceit was more extensive than an isolated “error in judgment.” He had delivered a message to Moscow that arguably undermined his own government, then provided false accounts about that conversation not only to the FBI but to Vice President Pence, Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer and a reporter for The Washington Post.
Below is an account of Flynn’s descent from one of the highest-ranking positions in the U.S. government to convicted felon, drawn from “The Apprentice,” a book published this October by The Washington Post and Harper Collins.
As the American public began confronting the magnitude of Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, Trump transition officials faced mounting pressure to explain Flynn’s mysterious interactions with Kislyak — calls that coincided with the Obama administration’s announcement of sweeping new sanctions against Moscow.
On January 13, 2017, Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer fielded questions about Flynn in a call with reporters. He laid out a supposed timeline of the Flynn-Kislyak interactions during the final week of December and strenuously denied any discussion of sanctions. The exchange started on Christmas Day, Spicer said, with Flynn sending the Russian envoy a holiday greeting by text and saying, “I wish you all the best.” Flynn followed up with additional texts and a December 28 call “centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in.”
“That was it,” Spicer said. “Plain and simple.”
That wasn’t it. On January 15, five days before Trump took the oath of office, Mike Pence appeared on the CBS Sunday morning show Face the Nation. It was inevitable, given the news of the week, that he, too, would face questions about Flynn and Kislyak.
“It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation” on the same day that sanctions were announced, Pence said. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’s decision to expel diplomats or impose censure on Russia.” Pence made clear he was relaying the facts straight from Flynn, “having spoken to him about it,” and repeated that the conversations Flynn had with Kislyak “had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.”
Transcripts or summaries of the Kislyak call had already been disseminated to a handful of officials in Washington. That meant that leaders at the NSC, the Justice Department, and the FBI were already aware, or soon would be, that the statements by Spicer and Pence were untrue. They knew that Flynn not only had urged Russia not to retaliate but had taken a subsequent call from Kislyak two days later, on December 31, with the ambassador explaining that Putin had held off at Flynn’s request. If, as they claimed, Spicer and Pence had truly relied on Flynn’s accounts, then the next national security adviser had lied to the future vice president, the future White House spokesman, and by extension, the American public.
Flynn moved through inauguration weekend with oblivious elation. Under cloudy skies on the west-facing stairs of the Capitol, he sat in the stands behind Trump as the Republican took the oath of office. The next day Flynn accompanied Trump to the CIA for the speech that dismayed so many of the agency’s rank and file. Flynn himself was sworn in a day later as part of a group of White House officials. Wearing a bright blue tie and raising his right hand, he vowed that he would “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same. . . .”
Two days later, FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe called Flynn at the White House. McCabe said the bureau needed to speak with him, proposed sending a pair of agents over, and asked whether Flynn wished to have an attorney present. Flynn knew this was about Kislyak and must have assumed that the bureau had a transcript, but the retired general also had a misplaced confidence in his ability — whether in combat zones or in Washington — to navigate perilous situations.
“No,” Flynn said about needing a lawyer, “send them over.”
Several of Flynn’s senior aides came looking for him at his office in the West Wing a few hours later. As the staffers approached, they could see that Flynn’s door was closed. The Coast Guard captain who served as Flynn’s executive assistant said that the national security adviser was with a pair of FBI agents. At first the staffers thought there had been a scheduling mix-up. Flynn was supposed to meet with FBI officials the next day for a counterintelligence briefing. The Coast Guard captain said this was something else, added to the schedule at the last minute, and that Flynn had gone into the meeting saying something about how “he just wants to get this settled. Wants this over with.”
That set off an alarm. With speculation about Flynn’s call with Kislyak still swirling, it didn’t require any flash of insight to figure out why the FBI was in the West Wing. One of the NSC staffers grabbed a secure phone and called the NSC legal office across the street in the Eisenhower Building, where he reached John Eisenberg, the deputy counsel for national security affairs.
“You need to get over here,” the aide said. “Flynn is meeting two FBI agents.”
Inside, Flynn’s legal problems were mounting by the minute. He flatly denied that he had made any suggestion during his call that Russia refrain from retaliating. He said he did not recall the follow- up conversation in which Kislyak reported that Moscow had indeed put off its planned response. But the agents had even more ammunition, asking Flynn about a December 22 call in which he asked Russia to vote against a United Nations Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements. That, too, would be a violation of the Logan Act. [That law criminalizes private negotiations with foreign powers over disputes with the United States.] Flynn said he’d only asked Kislyak what Russia’s position would be and made no request.
Eisenberg raced to Flynn’s office, but by the time he got there the meeting was wrapping up and the national security adviser was smiling and shaking hands with the two agents—Joe Pientka and Peter Strzok—as if they were all old friends. When Eisenberg pressed for an explanation, Flynn shrugged. “I brought these guys over,” he said. “I don’t have anything to hide.”
Weeks later, it was not yet five in the evening but already dark when veteran Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung left the newsroom for the five-block walk to the White House. DeYoung had worked for the Post since the 1970s, serving multiple tours as a foreign correspondent before coming back to D.C. to work as an editor and reporter covering national security issues with a focus on the White House. She had done most of the paper’s sit-down interviews with national security advisers dating back to the George W. Bush administration, and she had requested a meeting with Flynn weeks earlier for a story that would focus on the administration’s priorities and how the retired Army general planned to approach the job.
Before she’d departed the building, DeYoung had huddled with colleagues to plan a second set of questions regarding Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador.
A team of reporters had been working for weeks on an article that would say that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. The paper was confident enough in its sourcing that a draft of the team’s story was already in the Post’s system when DeYoung entered the West Wing on February 8. Flynn’s spacious corner office had large windows on the north and west walls, with a large desk, a couch seating area on one side, and a conference table with chairs on the other. DeYoung and Flynn spoke for the better part of an hour on foreign policy issues until NSC spokesman Michael Anton interrupted to say the interview would need to wind down. DeYoung took that as a cue.
“My colleagues at the Post are preparing to publish a story which says that you did in fact discuss sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak,” she said. “This is from current and former officials, people who have listened to the intercepts. . . .”
Flynn’s eyes narrowed. “How can they listen to the intercepts? How can they do that? Imagine that you’re listening to . . .” He trailed off, shaking his head. A career intelligence officer, he seemed preoccupied by the idea that such a recording was in circulation. (In fact, the recording itself wasn’t shared as widely as a report summarizing the contents.) Flynn, who had been characteristically voluble to that point, suddenly became monosyllabic. “No.” “Never?” DeYoung asked. “No.” “Was there any signaling to the ambassador that if they would wait in terms of their response . . .”
The next day The Post called Anton and informed him the paper was planning to publish an article on Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador, despite his denials. By that point, the ground had already shifted for Flynn inside the White House. After Flynn’s interview with DeYoung, word spread that a Post story was coming. Priebus, McGahn, and Eisenberg gathered with Flynn and pressed him on his conversations with Kislyak. They told him what DeYoung has also said — that there were transcripts. Flynn was cornered and his story crumbled. Now he “either was not sure whether he discussed sanctions or did not remember doing so,” according to a timeline that McGahn put together.
Anton called the Post to say that Flynn now wanted to withdraw his denials to DeYoung and replace them with a statement saying that “while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”