Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to one felony count of lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador last year, bringing the special counsel’s investigation into the 2016 election deeper into President Donald Trump’s inner circle.
Prosecutors said Flynn’s conversations about sanctions with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December 2016 came after input from at least two other top members of Trump’s presidential transition team.
A Republican close to the White House indicated that Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, was one of the transition officials named in the Flynn plea documents and that K.T. McFarland — who would go on to become deputy national security adviser and is now the president’s nominee for ambassador to Singapore — was the other.
Flynn’s guilty plea took place as part of a deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, as it investigates Russian interference in the election and whether any members of the Trump campaign were involved. Flynn has pledged to cooperate fully with the ongoing investigation, including by testifying in any other criminal cases prosecutors file.
The guilty plea, accepted by a federal court in Washington Friday morning, is the latest turn of fortune for Flynn, a retired Army general who served as national security adviser for less than a month. He is accused of lying to FBI agents in January, shortly after the inauguration, about his conversations with Kislyak.
The plea also represents a devastating moment for the Trump White House, which has at various times dismissed Russian interference in the election as “fake news” and predicted that the investigation would wrap up by the end of the year.
Adding to the administration’s woes, the explosive news came as Republican senators on Capitol Hill scrambled to cobble together enough votes to push through a major tax cut bill, the administration’s top legislative priority. With a vote expected Friday, the day was set to be a potential high watermark for a White House that has struggled to advance substantive legislation nearly a year into Trump’s first term as it has dealt with the continually brewing Russia controversy.
Flynn admitted that he told agents that he had not asked Kislyak to avoid escalating tensions over sanctions imposed by former President Barack Obama, and he also told agents he had not asked Kislyak to delay or defeat a pending resolution at the U.N. Security Council. Both of those statements proved to be false, according to court documents.
At the hearing where Flynn entered his guilty plea Friday, prosecutor Brandon Van Grack offered additional details that appeared to connect Flynn’s Russian contacts to the highest levels of the Trump transition team. Van Grack said Flynn spoke with Kislyak about sanctions after a phone call on the topic with “a senior official of the transition team at Mar-a-Lago.”
“Immediately after that phone call, the defendant called the Russian ambassador,” Van Grack said.
Van Grack also said that the conversation with Kislyak that Flynn lied about regarding the U.N. resolution came at the direction of “a very senior member” of the Trump transition team. The prosecutor did not further identify that individual, but the Republican close to the White House said this was Kushner.
The resolution in question was proposed by Egypt to reprimand the Israeli government over settlement activity.
“A very senior member of the Presidential transition team directed Flynn to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution,” said a written statement of facts signed by Flynn and prosecutors.
Prosecutors did not allege that anyone told Flynn to lie about his talks with the Russian ambassador, which is the crime the former national security adviser admitted to Friday.
However, the sequence of events suggests the possibility that Flynn made the false statements to the FBI not only to protect himself from a potential criminal charge under the Logan Act for conducting unauthorized diplomatic activity, but perhaps to prevent others in Trump’s orbit from falling under suspicion under that two-century-old, rarely used statute.
The White House has consistently said the national security adviser misled top aides and officials — including Vice President Mike Pence, who led the transition — about his sanctions conversations. On Friday, the administration sought to play down the severity of the situation, pointing to Flynn’s brief tenure.
“Today, Michael Flynn, a former National Security Advisor at the White House for 25 days during the Trump Administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI,” White House attorney Ty Cobb said in a statement. “The false statements involved 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. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
But charging documents only deepened scrutiny of who knew what, and when. It remains unclear which transition official directed Flynn to contact Russia about the U.N. resolution, and which official discussed the sanctions conversation with him. The documents also note that “other senior members” of the transition were at Mar-a-Lago when the sanctions conversation took place, raising the prospect that numerous officials were aware of the contact.
Pence, who was still governor of Indiana during the transition, has maintained that he was unaware of the content of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak. Pence was in Indiana on Dec. 21 and was slated to stay there through the holidays, according to reports at the time. He hosted his son’s wedding at the governor’s residence in Indianapolis on Dec. 28, and remained in the state, with the exception of a day trip to Chicago for fundraising on Dec. 30, through the end of the year.
Flynn, 58, wearing a gray suit and striped tie, stood for more than half an hour Friday morning at a lectern in the crowded courtroom of U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras. Flanked by his defense attorneys Robert Kelner and Stephen Anthony, the retired general seemed calm as he gave “yes” or “no” answers to a series of routine questions about whether he understood the rights he was waiving by pleading guilty.
“Mr. Flynn, I assume you’ve never been through this process?” asked Contreras, an appointee of President Barack Obama.
“Never, your Honor,” Flynn replied.
Near the end of the lengthy back-and-forth, Contreras asked: “Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”
“Guilty, your Honor,” Flynn said.
There were immediate signs that prosecutors are seeking to leverage Flynn’s information to press forward with their investigation. No immediate sentencing date was set and Flynn was released on his own recognizance, with instructions to report to the court’s probation department once a week.
Van Grack sought to put off further proceedings regarding Flynn for three months, but the judge told both sides to report to the court in writing by Feb. 1 on the status of the case. The plea agreement also includes a provision discussing the possibility that Flynn may provide information that helps prosecutors charge or convict someone else.
While the charge Flynn admitted to comes with a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000, defendants usually get far less than the maximum, particularly when they cooperate with prosecutors. The plea agreement contemplates a sentence of between zero and six months in custody for Flynn, although Contreras is not bound by the two sides’ agreement that a sentence in that range would be “reasonable.”
Flynn made no comment as he braved a crowd of reporters and camera crews to depart the courthouse after the 40-minute hearing.
In a written statement distributed by his attorneys, Flynn seemed to acknowledge that what he did was serious, but suggested it was not as grave as some of the most serious accusations made against him in recent months.
“It has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of ‘treason’ and other outrageous acts,” the retired lieutenant general and former Defense Intelligence Agency chief said. “Such false accusations are contrary to everything I have ever done and stood for. But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right. My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country.”
The mention of his family may have been in reference to his son Michael Flynn Jr., who served as a top aide to his father and has reportedly also come under investigators’ scrutiny.
The new charge brings the criminal case into the Trump White House and raise questions about who else in the administration Mueller could be eyeing. And the news comes as a blow for the president, who defended Flynn even after he fired him for lying to Pence about the same conversations with Kislyak. Former FBI Director James Comey has said Trump asked him in February to go easy on Flynn. Trump later fired Comey.
Flynn’s alleged misstatements to the bureau predate Mueller’s investigation. He was named special counsel in May, taking over a series of pending investigations related to Russia after Comey’s firing.
Comey took to Twitter on Friday with a message that seemed to be in response to the news: “‘But [let] justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream’ Amos 5:24.”
Flynn was photographed and fingerprinted Friday morning at the FBI’s Washington field office, as two other Trump associates, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, were when they were charged in October. While declining to comment on Flynn specifically, an FBI source explained that this is the normal process for any arrest.
Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, especially his attempts to undercut the Obama administration’s policy, appear well outside the purview of traditional actions taken during a transition.
“All governments want to meet with transition officials during the transfer of power from one president to another,” Michael McFaul, a former top Obama administration official who would serve as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, said in an emailed statement to POLITICO. “In 2008, we tried to minimize these interactions and focus on building our new foreign policy team. I never once spoke with a Russian official during the transition. That said, there is also a deft way to talk to governments about YOUR future policy ideas, abstractly, without interfering in the policies of the incumbent administration.”
Democrats, meanwhile, reacted to the charge with apparent glee.
“Lock him up, lock him up, lock him up, lock him up,” Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) wrote on Twitter, repurposing the “lock her up” chant that was a hallmark of Trump’s campaign, and that Flynn himself at times deployed.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement: “Michael Flynn’s guilty plea is about more than just lying to the FBI. What he lied about and when he did it are of even greater significance. This shows a Trump associate negotiating with the Russians against U.S. policy and interests before Donald Trump took office and after it was announced that Russia had interfered in our election. That’s a stunning revelation and could be a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with a foreign power.”
In 2016, Flynn was the rare establishment-type figure to come out vocally as a Trump supporter, earning him a prime speaking slot at the Republican National Convention, where, invoking Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he joined the crowd in chants of “Lock her up!” Trump even considered picking Flynn as his running mate, and he appeared to relish in the support from someone who served more than three decades in the military, working as a top intelligence officer in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Flynn had publicly soured on Trump’s predecessor after he was ousted as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 by Obama, who later warned Trump against hiring Flynn. Trump ignored the warning and tapped Flynn to be his national security adviser the week after the election.
But even as he was advising Trump during the campaign, Flynn was also lobbying for a firm run by a Turkish-American businessman with ties to the Turkish government. The firm paid Flynn’s company, the Flynn Intel Group, more than $500,000 last year as part of a campaign to discredit Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania whom the Turkish government has blamed for instigating a failed coup, according to lobbying disclosures.
Flynn retroactively registered with the Justice Department in March as a foreign agent because his lobbying work “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey,” as Kelner, the defense attorney, wrote in a letter at the time. But Flynn admitted in a document released by the special counsel on Friday that he’d lied about the work he did in the registration, which Flynn’s lawyers portrayed at the time as his coming clean about his lobbying work.
Flynn admitted to making “materially false statements and omissions” in his retroactive registration, including lying about the fact that the Turkish government officials were supervising and directing the work. He also misrepresented his lobbying work by stating that it was “focused on improving U.S. business organizations’ confidence regarding doing business in Turkey,” and lied about an op-ed he published in The Hill on Election Day in which he compared Gulen to Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini. Flynn stated in the registration in March that he’d written the op-ed voluntarily and not on behalf of Turkey or anyone else.
The document, which Flynn signed on Thursday under penalty of perjury, also contradicts the account of Ekim Alptekin, the Turkish-American businessman who hired Flynn through his company, Inovo BV. Alptekin told POLITICO in an interview in March that the Turkish government had no involvement in directing Flynn’s work and that Flynn had written the op-ed in The Hill of his own accord.
“I really think that he’s not very politically savvy,” Alptekin said at the time. “He acts on his motivational impulse.”
Unlike Manafort and Gates, Flynn hasn’t been charged with breaking foreign lobbying law, perhaps because he is cooperating with Mueller’s team.
Flynn’s potential legal troubles extend beyond his lobbying.
Before joining Trump’s campaign, he received more than $65,000 from RT, Russia’s state-owned TV network, and two other Russian companies in connection with a trip to Moscow in 2015 to give a speech. Retired military personnel are barred from receiving payments from foreign governments without permission, which Flynn apparently did not obtain. Flynn also failed to mention the trip or the payments when filling out a security clearance form in January, according to Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee. Knowingly lying on such forms is a felony.
In May, CNN reported that federal prosecutors were issuing grand jury subpoenas in Alexandria, Va., to associates of Flynn’s. Later reports indicated that he asked for immunity in exchange for congressional testimony, but the request was denied. In September, his family set up a fund to accept contributions to pay for his legal defense.
Darren Samuelsohn, Andrew Restuccia, Nancy Cook and Louis Nelson contributed to this report.
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