UPDATE: On a day of fast-breaking news, there’s a lot to keep up with. There’s breaking news from Bloomberg that it was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who told Flynn to open the dialogue with Russian Ambassador Kislyak—so Flynn wasn’t operating solo, but with the full knowledge and approval of the president’s inner circle, if not the president himself. The charging documents in Flynn’s plea agreement, filed by the Office of Special Counsel, specifically stated that Flynn made contacts with the Russian ambassador last December after talking to “a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (‘PTT official’), who was with other members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach…”
And, in that same document, Mueller’s office says explicitly that Flynn’s lies interfered with the collusion inquiry: “Flynn’s false statements and omissions impeded and otherwise had a material impact on the FBI’s ongoing investigation into the existence of any links or coordination between individuals associated with the Campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”
One of the central figures in Russiagate, and a key cog in Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, pleaded guilty today in federal court on two counts of lying about his December 2016 interactions with Russia’s then–US Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Gen. Michael Flynn, who served as Trump’s national-security adviser for several weeks at the start of the administration, until being ousted for lying about his contacts with the Russian, is likely now telling Robert Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel, everything he knows about whether or not Team Trump colluded with Moscow last year.
Mueller’s charge against Flynn says bluntly that he “did willfully and knowingly make materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements” about his discussions with Kislyak. One count points out that Flynn lied to the FBI about his request to Kislyak that Moscow moderate its response to Obama’s sanctions against Russia. The other—the new bombshell—reveals that Flynn lied about his request that Moscow delay or defeat a pending UN resolution demanding a halt to “all Israeli settlement activities” in the occupied territories (one on which the Obama administration abstained, allowing it to pass). In both cases, Flynn was conspiring with a foreign power to subvert a sitting president’s foreign policy.
Did Trump’s campaign collude with the Russians to subvert the US elections? The answer is still: We don’t know. There’s plenty of smoke, from multiple directions. Nearly all of what’s known is sorted out and described in a book by Luke Harding, a reporter for The Guardian, called Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win. I’ve read Harding’s book, which among other things boasts an interview with Christopher Steele, the former MI-6 operative whose famous dossier makes a detailed case for Trump-Russia collusion, but despite its title, the book fails to make a conclusive case that the campaign colluded with, or cooperated with, the Russian attack on Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Even the excerpts from the Steele interviews that Harding and his colleagues conducted are in the end anticlimactic, and Steele says little that goes beyond what’s already in the dossier itself.
That said, hardly a week goes by without some new revelation, testimony, or evidence suggesting that one or another of the many colorful, Star Wars bar–like collection of Trump aides, associates, campaign officials, and family members had suspicious or questionable ties to the Russian government or to various Russian oligarchs and wheeler-dealers. Unless you’re paying close attention, keeping track of all the players and drawing connecting lines among them, you can be forgiven if you can’t remember or explain every twist and turn in this saga. And even then—noting, of course, our lack of access to the information gathered by the US intelligence community since 2015; by Russiagate special counsel Robert Mueller; and by the House and Senate intelligence committees—it’s too early to conclude that the Trump campaign did what many, including me, suspect that it did: actively work to encourage Russia’s 2016 meddling.
What’s even more unsettling is that we may not find out for quite a while. Despite Trump’s apparent belief that the various investigations are winding down and nearing their conclusions, that’s not likely to be the case. The president, it’s been reported, expects Mueller to wrap up his inquiry by the end of the year and will “blow a gasket” if there was no statement of exoneration by year’s end,” and his own lawyers say that it will all go away soon. Behind closed doors, in a meeting with Senate Republicans, Trump insisted that the Senate intelligence committee wrap up its Russiagate inquiry, a fact revealed afterward by Richard Burr, the GOP chairman of the committee, who was clearly displeased with Trump’s improper request. In fact, both the congressional inquiries and Mueller’s investigation are open-ended, and there’s no timetable for calling it quits. These things take time, experienced prosecutors say, and Mueller is in no hurry.
Indeed, the investigation didn’t start six months ago, when Mueller was appointed. It is a direct continuation of an investigation officially launched by the FBI in July 2016, more than 16 months ago, when the intelligence community had already picked up significant evidence that Trump-connected individuals were engaged in a curious pattern of contacts with various Russians. This past March, then–FBI Director James Comey dropped the bombshell that confirmed the bureau had been investigating the campaign, telling the House intelligence committee that “as part of our counterintelligence mission” the FBI had months earlier opened an inquiry that “includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Over the course of that 16 months—and, yes, it could last another 16 months—we’ve learned a lot. Just as the FBI does in any routine organized-crime takedown, Mueller is quietly going after each and every potential participant, starting from the bottom and moving to the top. And in that hierarchy, one of the people who could potentially do the most damage to Trump—outside of the president’s immediate family, including Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, who will be the hardest nuts for Mueller to crack—is Gen. Michael Flynn. Trump undoubtedly knows that Flynn can sing, and loudly, having served as Trump’s foreign-policy and national-security adviser during the campaign and then, for a few weeks, as White House national-security adviser.
Mueller has already filed criminal indictments against two key members of Trump’s inner circle: Paul Manafort, his campaign manager, and Rick Gates, his deputy campaign manager. Both were nailed on charges unrelated to Trump-Russia collusion, revolving around money-laundering and other criminal activity tied to their years-long connections to Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs and politicians. So far, at least, neither Manafort nor Gates has seemed willing to cooperate with Mueller. They still might do so, as part of a plea bargain in exchange for immunity or a lighter sentence. (Mueller has already struck such a deal with another campaign official, one lower on the totem pole: George Papadopoulos, who in the spring of 2016 was told by the Russians that they had “dirt” on Clinton, including “thousands of [her] emails,” long before anyone knew publicly that Russians had hacked into the Democratic National Committee.)
It now appears that Flynn is cooperating with Mueller and the FBI. Earlier, Flynn’s lawyers reportedly stopped communicating with attorneys for others on Team Trump, suggesting that Flynn and his legal team have at least opened a dialogue with Mueller about a deal. And on Friday morning, Flynn showed up in federal court to plead guilty on two counts, both related to contacts between Flynn and Kislyak on two occasions last December. But the case against Flynn could be expanded to include various shenanigans technically not related to Russiagate. They include Flynn’s failure to report ties between his company, the Flynn Intel Group, and various Turkish and Turkey-connected Dutch interests; his failure to get permission from the Defense Department and the State Department to accept $45,000 from Russia’s RT broadcast unit, and his failure to report that income on his security-clearance form; and his involvement in a bizarre scheme to kidnap an opponent of Turkey’s president who was living in the United States and spirit him off to Ankara.
Another incentive for General Flynn to spill the beans: Mueller may have the goods on his son Mike Flynn Jr. too.
So, if Flynn opts to cooperate with Mueller, what could he say?
First, of course, he could share what he might know about collusion during 2016. Does he know anything more about Papadopoulos’s discussions with the Russians, including whether Donald Trump was informed about the Russians’ “dirt” on Clinton? Does he know more about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between a delegation of Russians promising more Clinton “dirt” and Manafort, Don Jr., and Kushner? Does he know more about Carter Page, a Trump foreign-policy aide who interacted so closely with various Russians in 2016 that the FBI asked the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court to give them permission to open up a surveillance operation against Page?
Second, Flynn could reveal whether or not President-elect Trump knew about his December 2016 exchanges with Kislyak. The proximate cause for Flynn’s being fired in February as national-security adviser is that he failed to reveal the fact that he held substantive, and not merely casual, discussions with the Russian envoy and that he lied about it to White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence. When Flynn’s talks with Kislyak were revealed, Flynn claimed that he didn’t talk to the Russian ambassador about US sanctions on Russia and whether they might be lifted. But it was later reported that he did discuss those sanctions. If Flynn tells Mueller that he did all this on Trump’s instructions, and that the president lied about it, it could open a whole new line of inquiry for the special counsel.
Third, Flynn could say what he might know about an odd, seemingly Russia-friendly back-channel peace plan for Ukraine that was cooked up among Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, a Trump-linked wheeler-dealer named Felix Sater, and a Ukrainian politician, Andrii Artemenko, and reportedly hand-delivered by Cohen to Flynn last February. The legal questions for Flynn emerging from this episode are unclear, but it’s possible that Mueller will have questions about Trump aides engaging in freelance diplomacy. In addition, Mueller might want to know about Artemenko’s ties to Manafort, since, according to a McClatchy report, Manafort and his Ukrainian business partner used Artemenko’s private plane during Manafort’s consulting work in Kiev. (Sater and Cohen were also in e-mail contact in late 2015 and early 2016, when, during Sater’s visit to Moscow, he wrote excitedly to Cohen: “Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of [Vladimir] Putins [sic] team to buy in on this.”)
In any case, Trump seems to have been well aware of the damage that Flynn can do. In one sense, it’s his own fault: Trump rejected warnings, from President Obama, among others, not to hire him. Then, for weeks, he resisted getting rid of Flynn, even when Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House that Flynn could be blackmailed by Moscow. Perhaps Trump hesitated because he realized the damage Flynn could from the outside once he was fired. And, after Flynn’s ouster, Trump repeatedly tried to cajole and browbeat FBI Director Comey into lifting the bureau’s investigation into Flynn, saying to Comey, “I hope you can let this go.” (In fact, Trump’s clash with Comey over Flynn was one of the conflicts between Trump and Comey that led to the president’s decision to fire the FBI director.) In all of this, Trump appeared to stress Flynn’s loyalty, and demanded—but didn’t get—pledges of loyalty from Comey, too. Now, by all appearances, Flynn is placing his own future, and that of his son, above whatever loyalty he might have left to President Trump.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article cited an ABC News report in the “Update” lead which said that during the presidential campaign, Donald Trump directed Michael Flynn to “make contact with the Russians.” The ABC report was mistaken; Trump asked Flynn to do so only after the election. ABC has acknowledged the error, which has been deleted from this article.