President Trump’s short-lived first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, on Friday morning pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in one of the most dramatic developments yet in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election.
As part of the plea agreement, Flynn has agreed to cooperate fully with Mueller’s investigation. For the time being, at least, he will remain free — although the charge he faces carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.
Flynn is the first official to hold a formal office in the Trump administration to be brought down by the Mueller probe, which is examining potential ties between the campaign and Moscow during the 2016 campaign.
A low-level campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, has also pleaded guilty to lying to investigators and is cooperating with Mueller’s team, according to court documents — but Flynn, as a one-time close confidant of the president and a sitting administration official for 24 days, is a much bigger fish.
According to court documents filed by Mueller, Flynn lied when he told investigators that he did not ask then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to “refrain from escalating the situation” in response to sanctions that then-President Obama had levied on Russia in response to meddling in the election.
Flynn also lied, the counsel charged, when he said he did not ask the ambassador to stymie an unrelated United Nations Security Council vote.
Flynn’s misrepresentation of his conversations with Kislyak — which took place in December 2016, before Trump took office — were the justification for his ouster from the White House after just 24 days.
But government prosecutors on Friday raised new questions about who in Trump’s orbit knew Flynn was misrepresenting the content of the calls.
Prosecutors told U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras that Flynn spoke with a “senior official” in President’s Trump’s transition team at the Mar-a-Lago resort to discuss what he should communicate to the Russian ambassador during the calls.
Flynn and the senior officials discussed both the recently implemented U.S. sanctions on Russia, as well as the fact that they did not want Russia to escalate friction between the two nations, prosecutors said.
After the discussion, Flynn telephoned Kislyak. He then called the senior transition official and reported the sanctions discussion, prosecutors said.
Shortly after that phone call, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would not retaliate against Obama’s sanctions at that time. Kislyak later followed up with Flynn and affirmed that Russia would moderate its response to the sanctions. Flynn communicated that exchange to other transition officials.
Prosecutors also say that a “very senior member” of the president’s transition team “directed” Flynn to officials from foreign governments — including Russia — to persuade them to vote against a U.N. Security Council resolution. Flynn obtained such assurances from Kislyak.
Asked by Contreras if he had done what the government alleges in the plea deal, Flynn, standing at the lectern flanked by his lawyers, had a one-word answer: “Yes.”
Reporting based on leaks of U.S. surveillance revealed in February that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence about the contents the phone call, saying that sanctions were not mentioned — an account Pence then repeated to the American people.
At the time, then-deputy Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that Flynn created a “compromise situation” and could have been “blackmailed.”
“We weren’t the only ones that knew all of this,” Yates testified earlier this year, referring to the revelation that Flynn misled Pence about the true content of the December call with Kislyak. “The Russians also knew about what Gen. Flynn had done. The Russians also knew that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others.”
The White House fired Flynn 18 days after Yates issued her warning. The identity of the senior transition team official with whom Flynn coordinated is not yet known.
A White House lawyer who is handling matters related to the various Russia investigations said Friday that the false statements Flynn made to the FBI “mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year.”
“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn,” Ty Cobb said in a statement.
Flynn was interviewed by the FBI as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the election in January when Mueller’s office now says he made false statements about the phone calls with Kislyak. The interview came just four days after Trump’s inauguration.
Speculation has swirled for weeks about when — or if — Mueller would move to charge Flynn, who was seen almost universally as legally vulnerable for a myriad of reasons beyond the Kislyak calls.
According to multiple outlets, Flynn is also under investigation for an alleged quid pro quo with the Turkish government, in which Flynn would have been paid millions of dollars in exchange for the extradition of a Muslim cleric living in the U.S.
Federal records show that Flynn did not register the $530,000 he was paid during the 2016 campaign for work he did that the Justice Department said principally benefited Turkey — a potential violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
And heightening the personal drama, Flynn’s son is also thought to be a focus of the Mueller probe, giving the special counsel another way to put pressure on Flynn.
The Kislyak calls, meanwhile, appear to be a potential violation of the Logan Act, an obscure and likely unenforceable 1799 law prohibiting private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
No one has ever been successfully prosecuted under that law.
Given the breadth of potential charges Flynn could have faced — at least if the reporting is accurate — the single count of lying to investigators is incredibly light, analysts say.
It carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison and a fine up to $250,000. Sentencing has been deferred “for the time being” at the request of Mueller’s team, with a status update set for Feb. 1.
“The fact that Flynn was charged with, and is pleading guilty to, such a minor crime, suggests a bombshell of a deal with prosecutors,” said Cornell Law Vice Dean Jens Ohlin.
“If this is the entirety of the plea deal, the best explanation for why Mueller would agree to it is that Flynn has something very valuable to offer in exchange: damaging testimony on someone else,” Ohlin said.
Two other campaign officials, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his aide Richard Gates, also face charges in the investigation. They have both pleaded not guilty.
Flynn said in a statement “it has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of ‘treason’ … But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong.”
Trump has continued to defend his embattled former adviser, an outspoken figure who was fired from the Obama administration.
Flynn became a central figure in Trump’s orbit during the campaign, appearing at the Republican convention and leading the crowd in a chant of “Lock her up!” during his speech.
“Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media, in many cases,” Trump said shortly after dismissing him earlier this year. “And I think it is really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.”
– This story was updated at 12:29 p.m.