As dramatic a development as Michael Flynn’s guilty plea to lying to the FBI and agreement to cooperate may be in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s take-no-prisoners Russia scandal investigation, it is merely the tip of a very big iceberg, and it is what lies beneath that really matters.
Flynn was so mobbed up through countless meetings with Russians before, during and after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and had been involved in so many sleazy deals, that his plea Friday to a single count of lying to FBI agents about backchannel communications with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak is small beer.
Indeed, Flynn was at the very heart of the campaign’s collusion with hackers and Kremlin officials directed by Vladimir Putin in the successful cyberplot to sabotage the Hillary Clinton campaign although his plea did not touch on the underlying collusion issue.
The White House has repeatedly stated and said again on Friday that Flynn has no information that would be damaging to Trump, but that is patently false. ABC News is reporting that Flynn is prepared to testify that Trump “directed him to make contact with the Russians,” initially as a way to work together to fight ISIS in Syria.
Court documents released as part of Flynn’s plea agreement show that his discussions with Kislyak were part of a coordinated effort by aides running Trump’s presidential transition and, in at least one instance, he was directed by a “very senior member” of the transition team regarding the discussions.
The documents do not name the official, but I’m betting that it’s Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner.
Flynn apparently has told friends that he felt abandoned by Trump, who once considered him as his vice presidential running mate and had repeatedly defended him, and was increasingly concerned about the crippling legal costs he would face if he continued to resist Mueller.
“I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong,” he said in a statement following the 45-minute hearing. “And through my faith in God, I am working to set things straight.”
Flynn faces up to five years in prison on the charge to which he pleaded guilty, but Federal Judge Rudolph Contreras postponed sentencing while noting that Flynn has agreed to cooperate. He was freed after a brief hearing, but was ordered to check in with authorities each week, while it is unclear if his plea deal meant that his son will avoid prosecution although he is implicated in some of his father’s misconduct.
The timing of Flynn’s plea is delicious, if unintentionally so, coming just hours before the Senate gave Trump his first major legislative victory in passing tax reform legislation.
If Flynn can give the special prosecutor Kushner, as well as eldest son Donald Jr., that would cross a familial Rubicon for the increasingly deranged president and perhaps trigger an emotional meltdown that has seemed to be just a tweet away.
No matter what happens next, Flynn’s guilty plea leads back to the Oval Office because of Trump’s repeated efforts to protect him from then-FBI Director James Comey’s nascent Russia scandal investigation. And the reality that the president was not trying to shield Flynn but himself.
Comey, of course, got sacked when he didn’t get the message, which led to Mueller’s appointment in one of the more delicious twists in presidential history.
Mueller, who is perhaps the only person who can take down Trump, has assembled a crack team of investigators who are methodically preparing a veritable investigative banquet. Flynn is the first dish in the main course, while Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, who had their day in court on October 30, were mere appetizers.
Underlying Flynn’s guilty plea is a December 29 meeting with Kislyak, the same day that President Obama had increased sanctions against Russia because of its election interference. Flynn lied about that meeting when FBI agents interviewed Trump’s newly anointed national security adviser at the White House on January 24, four days after the president was sworn into office.
Flynn, according to Mueller’s court filing, lied about asking Kislyak to “refrain from escalating the situation” because of the new sanctions, while Kislyak had told Flynn the Kremlin had chosen to moderate its response “as the result of his request.”The following day, Putin said Moscow would not retaliate in response to the sanctions, which prompted Trump to praise the Russian leader in a tweet, saying “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!”
Separately, the filing states Flynn also lied about asking Kislyak to delay a vote on a United Nations Security Council resolution.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had asked the Trump transition team to lobby other countries to oppose the resolution condemning Israel for its latest round of building settlements in occupied Palestinian territories. Flynn and Kushner led the transition team’s efforts, and sources have said emails show that Flynn promised to work to kill the vote.
The guilty plea is a precipitous fall for Flynn, who was highly decorated during a career in Army intelligence that included a stint in Afghanistan.
Obama named Flynn director of the Defense Intelligence Agency is 2012, and in June 2013 he visited Moscow at the invitation of the chief of GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. It was there that he first met Kislyak. Obama fired Flynn in April 2014 because of clashes over his leadership style and what was seen as his raving Islamophobia.
Trump and Flynn met for the first time in August 2015 and he began to function as an informal foreign policy adviser, an arrangement that was later formalized. He was paid $45,000 by Russia Today, Putin’s state propaganda network, for a three-day trip to Moscow in December 2015 during which he gave a dinner speech criticizing Obama’s Russia policy and sat with Putin at the head table.
Over the summer of 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies collected information revealing that Russian operatives were discussing how to influence the campaign through Flynn and Manafort, while Trump had been repeatedly warned as president-elect — by one of his own advisers, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and Obama himself — that he should not appoint Flynn as his national security adviser because he could be blackmailed by Russia.
Shortly after Trump named Flynn, he and his son cut a deal with the government of Turkish strongman Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. They would kidnap Erdoğan’s arch enemy, Fethullah Gülen, a dissident Turkish cleric living legally in the Pennsylvania Poconos, and spirit him off in a private jet to a Turkish prison island for upwards of a cool $15 million. The plot would have been carried out after Flynn Sr. was installed in the White House.
The point, should anyone need reminding, is that a retired three-star general — a man who would shortly assume one of the most sensitive posts in government — had no problem selling his influence, as well as his soul, in the service of doing dirty work for foreign governments.
As part of the kidnap plot, Flynn Sr. and Jr. and Turkish reps discussed how to free Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who has been moldering in a federal lockup after being busted by the Obama administration for masterminding a huge operation to help the Iranian government evade economic sanctions put in place to discourage it from building nuclear weapons. Zarrab has pleaded guilty and is reportedly cooperating with Mueller.
The Turkish government also already had paid Flynn $530,000 while he was working for the Trump campaign to do opposition research on Gülen.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on December 1, 2017, on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.