President Donald Trump fired Michael Flynn as his national security adviser after only 24 days — but based on former FBI Director James Comey’s memos, it’s surprising that didn’t happen sooner.
Comey wrote memos after conversations with Trump in early 2017 in order to keep a written record. In the memos, which media obtained on Thursday night after the Justice Department sent redacted versions to Congress, Comey noted that Trump said he had “serious reservations” about Flynn — in part because he failed to tell Trump about a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Here’s what happened, according to Comey: Trump met with UK Prime Minister Theresa May in late January 2017. At one point during a lunch, Trump thanked May, saying she was the first world leader to congratulate him after his inauguration one week earlier. But then Flynn interrupted Trump to tell him another leader had actually called him first, although no one alerted the president.
The name of that person is redacted in the released version of Comey’s memo.
But the Wall Street Journal reported Friday morning that the person who called before May was — you guessed it — Putin. That, Comey says, was the first time Trump learned of the Putin call, “and he confronted Flynn about it.” Flynn responded that Trump would speak with Putin the following Saturday. Trump, however, was not pleased, saying that six days — the time between Putin’s first call and when Trump would call him back — was too long.
As Trump told this story to Comey, the president allegedly pointed his finger at his head and said, “the guy [Flynn] has serious judgment issues.”
Trump and Putin finally talked on January 28, according to the White House. Putin congratulated Trump on his election win and then both leaders spoke for about an hour about ISIS, Syria, and terrorism. In a readout, the White House said “[t]he positive call was a significant start to improving the relationship.”
If that was all the Comey memos detailed, it’d still be extraordinary. And yet...
Reince Priebus asked Comey if the government bugged Flynn
On February 8, 2017, Comey details a chat he had with then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus at the White House.
After they talked for a bit, Priebus asked Comey if their chat was a “private conversation.” Comey agreed, so Priebus asked, “Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?” using the acronym for the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Surveilling someone under FISA means law enforcement believes someone acted as a foreign agent. So if the FBI used FISA to bug the national security adviser, that would be a huge deal.
Comey’s answer, however, is redacted. But the Priebus-Comey meeting came 13 days after then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that Flynn had lied about his talks with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016.
So here’s the takeaway: Even during the early days of the Trump administration, high-level officials were worried that Flynn could possibly become a liability to Trump. Between that and Trump’s lament about Flynn’s “judgment,” it’s surprising Flynn stuck around as long as he did.
Comey’s memos provide new context for why Trump fired Flynn
Let’s recall what we already knew about why Trump let Flynn go just a few weeks after making him one of the most powerful people in Washington.
Flynn lied to Vice President Mike Pence about discussing Russian sanctions in calls with Kislyak prior to Trump’s inauguration. Trump didn’t like that, and then fired Flynn on February 14, 2017 — six days after the Priebus-Comey meeting. It was shocking, as Flynn was one of Trump’s most loyal supporters during the campaign, at one point even leading chants of “Lock her up!” during the Republican National Convention.
Until Comey’s memos came out on Thursday night, the public didn’t know about these incidents. They add a bit more context to Trump’s state of mind before he finally cut Flynn loose, and might insinuate that Flynn’s fib was one of a few reasons why Trump didn’t want Flynn in the White House anymore.
Still, Trump met with then-FBI Director Comey in the Oval Office day after Flynn’s ouster, and both men proceeded to talk about the former national security adviser, Comey wrote in the same set of memos, parts of which leaked last year. During that meeting, Trump allegedly told Comey that Flynn “is a good guy” and hoped Comey could see his way to “letting Flynn go.” At the time, the FBI was investigating Flynn’s ties to Russia. That means, per Comey, Trump insinuated the FBI should stop looking into Flynn.
In December 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI on or around January 24 about conversations with Kislyak. Flynn is now cooperating with Mueller — which means the special counsel now will decide what to make of Flynn’s judgment.