So now that Michael Flynn is cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team — what comes next?
Reports swirled Friday that Flynn is prepared to provide incriminating information about other associates of President Donald Trump, or even the president himself.
But it remains unclear just what that information would be — and how damning it would prove.
A big question at the center of this is whether Flynn will provide any information establishing collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia before the election — or whether his cooperation will focus instead on other matters.
And for now, the charging documents that have been released don’t focus on pre-election collusion. Instead, they zero in on Flynn’s descriptions of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition — after Trump had already won the election, but before he was inaugurated.
There certainly could be much more to the story. Given the massive amounts of legal jeopardy Flynn seemed to be in on a whole swath of issues, as compared to the relatively light single charge he pleaded guilty to, it certainly seems he’s agreed to provide information that Mueller would find very useful indeed.
But for now, here is what we actually know about what Flynn has admitted to the FBI — and what it implies about where the investigation could be headed next.
The charging documents focus on Flynn’s actions during the transition — not before the election
To understand what Flynn just pleaded guilty to and why it matters, we have to turn back the clock to December 2016 — the presidential transition period.
At this point, Donald Trump had already won the presidential election and named Flynn as his national security adviser-designate.
But as the Obama administration was closing out its final weeks in office, Flynn and the Trump team got themselves involved in two foreign policy controversies.
The most important of these involves new sanctions on Russia announced by President Obama on December 29, in response to Russian involvement in the hacking of leading Democrats’ emails.
Though Trump’s team didn’t admit it publicly, it soon leaked that Flynn had had a series of contacts with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, around this time, and questions were raised about whether Flynn was trying to undercut Obama’s new sanctions.
Trump officials, including Vice President-elect Mike Pence, said that wasn’t the case. “I talked to General Flynn yesterday, and the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to new U.S. sanctions against Russia,” Pence said in January.
Yet Flynn is now telling a different story. In a court document filed Friday, he admits that he called “a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” to discuss what he should communicate to Kislyak about the sanctions. The conclusion of the call, Flynn now says, was that they did not want Russia “to escalate the situation.”
So Flynn called Kislyak back and told him that. After that, Putin released a statement saying he wouldn’t retaliate. Also, Trump tweeted this out:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
The next day, Flynn admits in the court document, Kislyak called him back and “informed” him that “Russia had chose not to retaliate in response to” his request. Flynn says he then told other senior members of the transition team about this call.
The court document also says that Flynn was in contact with Kislyak on another topic that month — a planned United Nations Security Council vote to condemn Israel’s settlement policy. Flynn now admits that he urged Kislyak to get Russia to stop the vote.
Yet when Flynn was interviewed by the FBI on January 24 — four days after Trump’s inauguration, and once he was ensconced as National Security Adviser — he gave false statements on all these topics, he now says.
Flynn told the FBI that said he didn’t ask Kislyak to hold off on sanctions response, that he didn’t remember Kislyak’s later assurance that Russia held off because of his request, and that he didn’t ask Kislyak to try to stop the UN Security Council vote. He’s now admitted that all these statements were false, and pleaded guilty for them.
But so far as we know at this point, this still isn’t about collusion during the campaign
The implications here for the Trump team are not entirely clear.
Flynn now says that he kept other senior transition officials well apprised of his outreach to Kislyak during the transition. So if any of those other officials have made false statements to the FBI about these topics, they could face legal jeopardy as well. (Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports that Jared Kushner was one of the officials Flynn was keeping informed about his actions on the Israeli settlement vote issue.)
The Trump team’s public statements about this topic have also been extremely deceptive — a January riff in which Sean Spicer claimed sanctions had nothing to do with Flynn’s calls to Kislyak has held up particularly poorly.
But more broadly, if the big revelation here is that Trump and his team knowingly instructed Flynn to urge the Russians not to overreact to Obama’s sanctions during the transition — well, it looks a bit shady. But that alone doesn’t seem like an incredibly serious crime.
At that point, Trump was the president-elect waiting to take office, who’d get to run foreign policy in a few weeks anyway. He may have jumped the gun a bit, but it doesn’t seem equivalent to, say, working with the Russian government to try to swing the election in his favor.
Some liberals have suggested that Trump and Flynn could have run afoul of the Logan Act, an obscure 1799 law that prohibits people outside the US executive branch from making foreign policy. But this law is obscure for a reason — no one’s ever been successfully prosecuted under it. And it seems a stretch to apply it to advisers to the president-elect preparing to take office.
The question, of course, is whether this is merely part of a much larger story about a much more serious scandal.
Certainly the fact that Flynn lied to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak just a week later may suggest there is more to the story. And so does the fact that Mueller has struck a cooperation deal with Flynn. But if there is more to the story, we don’t yet know what it is.