Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn just pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about several conversations he had with the Russian ambassador last December, a striking development in the ongoing investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
I reached out to nine legal experts and asked them a simple question: Does this mean that Flynn is now actively cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe, which, if true, would put Trump and potentially his entire staff in legal jeopardy.
Their full responses, edited for clarity and style, are below.
Brandon Garrett, law professor, University of Virginia
An early guilty plea is a strong signal that Flynn negotiated with prosecutors and is cooperating. When there is a sentencing hearing, we will see whether Flynn receives credit for cooperating with prosecutors.
Another point worth noting is that a plea deal would only have been offered once there was real cooperation. Flynn must have already provided valuable cooperation in the investigation if a plea is being finalized.
Jens David Ohlin, law professor, Cornell University
The fact that Flynn was charged with, and is pleading guilty to, such a minor crime suggests a bombshell of a deal with prosecutors. Flynn was facing serious criminal liability for a variety of alleged missteps, including his failure to register as an agent of a foreign power. If this is the entirety of the plea deal, the best explanation for why Mueller would agree to it is that Flynn has something very valuable to offer in exchange: damaging testimony on someone else. Who? That’s not clear, but it probably is someone at the center — or close to the center — of this criminal enterprise.
Christopher Slobogin, law professor, Vanderbilt University
If the government has agreed not to prosecute Flynn on the much more serious charges his alleged connections with Russia could have triggered, then it’s probably getting something very significant in return. That something is probably evidence against someone higher up the food chain, and at this point, there aren’t too many links left in that chain.
Andy Wright, law professor, Savannah Law School
We can infer Flynn’s cooperation by what is not charged. We know from public reports that Flynn has a ton of criminal exposure, and yet he’s pleading guilty to a relatively minor crime. I’m confident Flynn is singing like a bird to Mueller.
Jessica Levinson, law professor, Loyola Law School
Michael Flynn’s plea deal all but ensures that he is working with special counsel Robert Mueller and providing prosecutors with information. This information very likely involves details that could help them continue their inquiry into whether the Trump campaign helped the Russian government interfere with the 2016 election and/or whether President Trump has attempted to obstruct justice by halting that inquiry.
Joshua Dressler, law professor, Ohio State University
Of course, the close proximity of the shutdown in communication between Flynn's lawyers and the White House and the announced guilty plea suggests he will turn on others in the White House in exchange for leniency in sentencing (and perhaps even in the charges brought against Flynn). The news today more or less confirms this.
Samuel Gross, law professor, University of Michigan
The prosecutors need inside evidence to continue to pursue their investigation against others connected in the Trump campaign, and possibly to indict other campaign insiders — who might in turn agree to plead guilty and provide more evidence. The odds-on bet is that Flynn has agreed to provide whatever information he has.
Miriam Baer, law professor, Brooklyn Law School
The plea deal is notable more for what it doesn’t say than what it actually does say. It tells us that Flynn’s December 2016 conversations with (then) Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were not as Flynn previously described them to the FBI — and if one reads the filing carefully, it apparently tells us that Flynn did in fact discuss US sanctions (and Russia’s response to US sanctions) with Kislyak.
But the information still does not tell us exactly what Flynn said to Kislyak or what Kislyak actually conveyed to him. Nor does it tell us anything about the relationship between the two men or whether they had further contacts. Thus, it seems quite likely that if Flynn is cooperating, he will ultimately plead guilty to other crimes besides this single count.
Lisa Kern Griffin, law professor, Duke University
The nature of the charges against Michael Flynn and his guilty plea confirm that he is cooperating with the Mueller investigation. To receive a cooperation deal of this sort, he needs to be providing information about higher-value targets than himself. We can only speculate about who those targets are, but news reports indicate that Flynn’s testimony could implicate other members of the administration, including the president, in some coordination with the Russian government during the campaign.
That would fit the ordinary meaning of “collusion,” but the term itself has no legal significance. What remains to be seen is whether those contacts rise to the level of a conspiracy to violate the campaign finance laws or some quid pro quo involving sanctions relief for Russia.