After a meeting with top-level officials, President Trump asked all of them to leave the room but FBI Director James Comey. He then asked Comey to drop the bureau’s investigation into former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey during a February 15 meeting, according a New York Times piece published on Tuesday. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Just think about that for a second. The president asked the FBI director to stop an investigation into a top administration official who was just forced out for lying about his meetings with the Russian ambassador — at the same time the bureau was investigating the president’s own ties to Moscow. It’s just an absolutely flabbergasting situation.
It also brings up a question: What, exactly, does the FBI have on Flynn? How much trouble is the former national security adviser in?
The FBI investigation into Flynn hasn’t leaked a ton, so we can’t be 100 percent sure. Nonetheless, we know about roughly three allegations of wrongdoing that Flynn is either for sure or possibly wrapped up in: lying about payments from foreign governments, the investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and lying about his meetings with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Any one of these could potentially get Flynn into hot water with the FBI.
The truth, it seems, is that Flynn has behaved very badly — and attracted a lot of attention from the authorities. Trump was right to worry that Flynn might be in trouble. Here’s why.
Scandal 1: lying about meeting the Russian ambassador
The scandal that got Flynn fired seems now to be the one least likely to get him locked up. But, ironically enough, it’s quite plausible that it was the reason for Trump’s intervention with Comey on his behalf.
A quick refresher on the facts of the situation. On December 29, the Obama administration announced a series of new sanctions on Russia as punishment for its interference in the US presidential election. That same day, Flynn called Kislyak multiple times.
When news of the call first went public, on January 12, the Trump administration admitted that the two men spoke but denied that they spoke about the sanctions. Trump press secretary Sean Spicer and Vice President Mike Pence both separately told reporters that the calls were a friendly exchange that grew out of Christmas greetings — a questionable story given that Russian Orthodox Christmas was actually on January 9, 2017.
The Justice Department quickly found out, from US surveillance of Kislyak, that Flynn was lying for sure — that he had in fact discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House this on January 26 and again on January 27. She worried that one of the country’s top officials was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” she said in sworn testimony before the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism and Crime on Monday. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
Yates was fired on January 30. But on February 9, her warnings went public. The Washington Post published a story confirming that Flynn had spoken to Kislyak about sanctions on December 29, and that FBI counterintelligence agents were investigating Flynn’s contact with Russia. Two sources told the Post that Flynn had strongly implied the Trump administration would be taking care of the sanctions.
The report also suggested that Flynn had lied to Pence personally, telling Pence he hadn’t discussed sanctions with Kislyak, thus leading Pence to give false statements to reporters.
The Post’s piece was the backbreaker for Flynn, who departed the administration on February 14 — a day before Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into him. But it wasn’t the end of the trouble for Flynn.
See, it appeared at the time that Flynn had lied to the FBI investigators as well as Pence. The Post — which really owned this story — reported on February 16 that Flynn “denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador.” Lying to federal investigators is a felony, punishable by jail time.
It now seems Flynn wasn’t going to be arrested; FBI investigators now reportedly believe he wasn’t intentionally lying to them. But Trump may not have known that back in February, and so may have been asking Comey to lay off the counterintelligence investigation into Flynn.
Scandal 2: Flynn accepting money from foreign sources
Flynn has a pretty shady history of connections to foreign countries more broadly — shady enough to get him into trouble with the law.
In April 2014, the Obama administration pushed then-Lt. Gen. Flynn out of his job running the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). Like many retired generals and admirals, Flynn moved to the private sector, opening a small consulting firm. Unlike many retired generals and admirals, he agreed to work for two different foreign governments.
Flynn became a regular talking head on RT, Russia’s state-owned English-language news outlet. In December 2015, he was paid $45,000 to attend RT’s 10th anniversary gala. He sat next to Vladimir Putin himself, and delivered a speech to the attendees about his view of the world. A recent Washington Post investigation found two more payments from Russian-affiliated companies totaling $22,500, also ostensibly for speeches.
In August 2016, Flynn’s consulting firm was hired by something called Inovo BV — a Dutch company that turned out to be a shell corporation for a wealthy member of the Turkish government. Flynn appears to have continued working for Turkey until November at the earliest, and was paid at least $530,000 by Ankara. During this time, he was also serving as a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign.
US citizens, even retired military officers, can legally work on behalf of foreign powers and take money from them. That’s not, in and of itself, problematic.
But in order to do so legally, Flynn needed to be exceptionally honest to the US government about it — and cease his work as soon he reentered a position in the US government. And it’s not clear that he actually did all of the required steps.
For one thing, he was late filing the paperwork for the Foreign Agent Registration Act — which isn’t that big a deal. But it’s not clear if he was entirely truthful on the paperwork he did file, and it’s also possible that he omitted the $45,000 payment on a form to renew his security clearance (called an SF-86), which requires such payments to be disclosed. Either would constitute lying to federal investigators, which (as we’ve discussed) is very illegal.
Two bodies, the Department of Defense and the House Oversight Committee, are known to be investigating these issues. Who knows if the FBI has uncovered anything relevant to it as well. Regardless, Flynn could be in trouble.
“If he didn’t actually lie to anybody … it’s a slap on the wrist,” Steve Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas who studies national security law, told me back in April. “But given all the noise that both DOD and the Oversight Committee are making, it sure seems like they think there’s more.”
Scandal 3: the investigation into Trump and Russia
The key question for both Congress and the FBI’s ongoing investigation to Trump and Russia is whether the Trump campaign knew about Russia’s hacking of the Clinton campaign and colluded in it — and, if so, whether Trump himself was involved in or aware of the collusion. Flynn’s long history of involvement with the Russians suggests he might have been involved.
Back in March, Flynn’s lawyer Robert Kelner released a statement asking for immunity from Congress (which it can grant) in exchange for Flynn’s testimony. “General Flynn certainly has a story to tell,” Kelner wrote, “and he very much wants to tell it.”
The clear implication is that Flynn has vital information about the ties between Trump and Russia, and that he did some questionable stuff while working for the Trump team. Thus, it would be in the public’s interest for Congress to grant Flynn immunity so he could explain what he did — and how many others in the campaign were involved.
But we have no idea what, if anything, Flynn actually has — or even if any collusion took place.
“If he really had some very specific information about Trump campaign collusion with the Russians ... there’s no way a lawyer would try to sell that information for immunity by way of release of a statement,” Ronald Wright, a law professor at Wake Forest University who studies immunity deals, told me at the time.
The fact that no one in Congress took Flynn up on his offer suggests that Wright was right. However, CNN reported on May 10 “federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records, as part of the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year's election.” That suggests that Flynn remains at least a person of interest in this investigation.