Friday’s indictment of former national-security adviser Michael Flynn has confirmed that Donald Trump’s inner circle colluded with a foreign power before entering the White House—just not the foreign power that has been the subject of our national fixation for the past year. To be sure, the jury is still out on Russia, though there are new grounds for questioning the case for a plot tying the Kremlin to Trump Tower. But with Flynn’s plea, we can now say for certain that the Trump team did collude—with Israel.
To recap, Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about his conversations with then–Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the period after Trump’s November 2016 victory. As Foreign Policy previously reported, Flynn reached out to Kislyak as part of “a vigorous diplomatic bid” to undermine President Obama’s decision to allow a December 2016 Security Council resolution condemning illegal Israeli settlement building in the Occupied Territories. The indictment fills in some details.
According to the charge sheet, Flynn first made contact with Kislyak to discuss the Israel vote. We found out this weekend his reason for doing so. “[Special counsel Robert] Mueller’s investigators have learned through witnesses and documents that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel asked the Trump transition team to lobby other countries to help Israel,” The New York Times reported after Flynn’s court appearance on Friday. “Investigators have learned that Mr. Flynn and [Trump son-in-law Jared] Kushner took the lead in those efforts”—efforts which failed to change a single vote, including Russia’s, which backed the measure in defiance of the Trump-Netanyahu subversion attempt.
In short, the first known contact between the Trump campaign and Russia after the election occurred in the service of a different foreign power, Israel, and was ultimately fruitless.
The next contact between Flynn and Kislyak was more productive. In late December, Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia for its alleged meddling in the 2016 election. A day later, Flynn called the Russian ambassador to request that the Kremlin, according to the plea document, “only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner.” Flynn’s overture came after a Trump transition colleague told him that the incoming administration “did not want Russia to escalate the situation.” By all accounts, Russia complied.
Whatever one thinks about this covert attempt to reduce tensions with a nuclear-armed power, it demonstrates an effort by the Trump transition, as with the Israel vote, to undermine the outgoing administration’s policy. Trump critics have seized on that as a violation of the Logan Act, which bars citizens from having unauthorized negotiations with foreign governments in a dispute with the United States. But the Logan Act has seldom been used except as a partisan talking point, not a prosecutable offense. More importantly, there’s the question as to whether Flynn’s overture on sanctions prove a quid pro quo.