President Trump was pitched into a deepening crisis on Friday as his former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and announced that he was cooperating with the team of investigators spearheaded by special counsel Robert Mueller.
The news, which broke early on Friday morning, delivered a seismic shock to the Trump team.
“Terrible,” was the verdict of one source close to Trump, speaking on condition of anonymity. The source added that Mueller’s success in getting Flynn to flip was “very dangerous” for the president.
The likelihood of Flynn cooperating with Mueller had been on the rise since Thanksgiving, when his attorneys had told lawyers working for Trump that they could no longer share information.
But the confirmation that the former national security adviser had been turned by Mueller was a political and legal bombshell.
The atmosphere of crisis gave rise to chaotic moments.
At one point, a small group of reporters at the White House assembled for a scheduled “pool spray” — jargon for a brief opportunity for photos and a shouted question or two — as Trump met the Libyan prime minister in the Oval Office.
They were then led back to the briefing room without being let into the meeting.
“There is no pool spray,” they were told by White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.
Trump on Saturday morning told reporters he’s not worried about the Flynn developments.
“What has been shown is no collusion,” he said when asked about Flynn. “There’s been absolutely no collusion so we’re very happy.”
The news all but obliterated the coverage of a significant step forward for Republicans on Capitol Hill, as the Senate passed the party’s tax-reform plan — the first significant legislative achievement since the GOP took control of a unified government in January.
The president’s personal lawyer, Ty Cobb, put a positive spin on the Flynn news. In a statement, he emphasized that Flynn had served as national security adviser for less than a month and also described him as “a former Obama administration official.”
Cobb insisted that “nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
But behind the scenes, the atmosphere in Trump’s orbit was different.
“It makes the White House staff very nervous, because no one exactly knows where the investigation will lead next,” said one GOP strategist with close ties to the administration.
Flynn’s decision to cooperate comes against the urgings of the president himself.
Yahoo News reported that Flynn told supporters in April that Trump had encouraged him to “stay strong.”
The previous month, Trump had , “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!”
The argument that the Mueller investigation is a witch hunt is now close to untenable.
Legal documents filed in relation to Flynn’s plea deal assert that he lied to FBI agents about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak during the transition period after Trump’s election victory.
According to the documents, Flynn falsely told the FBI that he had not asked the Russians to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions imposed by then-President Obama. He also falsely denied encouraging Russia to derail a resolution at the United Nations that was critical of Israel.
Mueller is boring deeper and deeper into Trump’s inner circle.
Court documents, for instance, state that Flynn had been directed by “a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” to representatives of foreign governments, including Russia, and try to persuade them to “delay the vote or defeat the resolution” at the United Nations.
Multiple news outlets have reported that this person is Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law.
The Flynn developments will also fuel speculation about whether the president obstructed justice when he asked then-FBI Director James Comey to back off the Flynn case, as Comey has testified, and then fired him.
On Friday morning, Comey raised eyebrows by tweeting a Biblical verse: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Joyce Vance, a former U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, noted that Flynn’s lies to FBI agents will be widely assumed to have some ulterior motive.
“A false statement to the government doesn’t happen in a vacuum,” she said. “False statements happen to cover up other problems, other criminal conduct. It seems very likely that Flynn has a story to tell and now Mueller has given him the deal he was seeking — or was perhaps forced to accept.”
Of the three other people in Trump’s orbit who have been charged as part of Mueller’s probe — former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, his associate Richard Gates and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos — only Papadopoulos is known to be cooperating with investigators.
When news of Papadopoulos’s cooperation first broke in October, more senior figures around Trump took a measure of comfort from his relative lack of standing in their world. He was not regularly in with top-level campaign officials, they insisted.
That is clearly not true of Flynn, who was a key campaign adviser and spoke on Trump’s behalf at last year’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, where he led the crowd in a chant of “lock her up” in reference to Democratic nominee .
Flynn’s cooperation means that Trump family members like Kushner — as well as Trump himself, should he agree to meet with investigators — could be at risk, according to experts.
Harry Litman, a former deputy assistant attorney general, predicted on Friday afternoon that, “Kushner and Trump are huddling with their lawyers right now trying to figure out everything they ever said to Michael Flynn.”
Litman added, “It’s not as if prosecutors are going to say, ‘Flynn thinks X, what do you think?’ If Flynn said X and then they say Y, they could be in serious trouble.”
No one knows how much Mueller knows, or whether other potential witnesses, as yet undiscovered, are cooperating with him.
If people close to the president have anything to hide, that is an unnerving vista.
“For Trump, remember the central part the Flynn investigation has played in all the maneuverings to date,” Litman said. “Well, whatever Flynn knows, Bob Mueller now knows. And whatever Mueller now knows, eventually the country will know.”
The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on ’s presidency.