Washington — Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to “willfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador, according to court documents. Flynn arrived at court Friday morning.
He is the first Trump administration official and the fourth connected to the campaign to be charged as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Russian government and members of Trump’s team, as well as potential obstruction of justice and financial crimes.
Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates were indicted last month; they pleaded not guilty. And Trump campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty for making a false statement to the FBI over contacts with officials connected to the Russian government.
But the charge against Flynn is the first in Mueller’s probe that has reached someone in the Trump White House and is the latest sign that the special counsel’s investigation is intensifying.
The White House declined to immediately comment, though a source who advises the administration on strategy said this was expected. “Poor judgment. But this was expected. Trump fired him for lying to (Vice President Mike Pence). Of course, he lied to the FBI, too,” the source said.
Another source, who is close to President Donald Trump, attempted to downplay the severity of the charge against Flynn by noting that lying in Washington is not new.
The source maintained that he was still not worried about any potential cooperation between Flynn and the prosecutors. Hillary Clinton, whom Trump defeated in the 2016 general election and was the focus of the “lock her up” chant first popularized by Flynn at the Republican National Convention, declined through a spokesman to comment on Friday’s developments.
Stunning downfall for Flynn
Flynn’s lawyers have previously criticized media reports about his connection to the Russia investigation as peddling “unfounded allegations, outrageous claims of treason, and vicious innuendo directed against him.”
Flynn hasn’t spoken publicly since his ouster in February. The charges mark yet another stunning downfall for Flynn, 58, a retired general who rose to the highest ranks of the Army over a three-decade career — only to see him drummed out of the military by the Obama administration before unexpectedly rising again on the heels of Trump’s election victory.
A key campaign surrogate and adviser during Trump’s presidential campaign, Flynn was tapped as Trump’s national security adviser in November 2016, a senior White House job that put him in a vital role for all of the administration’s national security and foreign policy decisions. Though he wasn’t initially considered for the top job, Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner made it clear to the Trump transition team that they wanted him there, CNN has reported.
Flynn would hold the job less than a month, resigning from the post after he misled Pence and then-chief of staff Reince Priebus about his conversations with then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in which they discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Flynn is also the spark of potential trouble for the President in Mueller’s probe, as the special counsel is investigating potential obstruction of justice in the firing of FBI Director James Comey. Comey testified before the Senate intelligence committee that Trump asked him to drop the Flynn probe during a February Oval Office meeting not long after Flynn resigned as national security adviser.
Talking about sanctions
Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak attracted scrutiny from federal investigators as part of the FBI’s broader counterintelligence investigation of Russian activities in the U.S., and the calls were captured by routine U.S. eavesdropping targeting the Russian diplomat, CNN has reported.
The Trump transition team acknowledged that Flynn and Kislyak spoke on the day in December 2016 that the Obama administration issued new sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 diplomats, but they insisted the conversation did not include sanctions — including denials that Pence and Priebus later repeated on national television.
Flynn resigned on February 13 after reports that he and Kislyak had spoken about sanctions and that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians. Details of how the DOJ warned the White House about Flynn’s conduct were revealed months later in stunning testimony from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who said that she “believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians” because of the misleading denials.
The charging document states that Flynn made a false statement to the FBI when he stated that in December 2016 he did not ask Kislyak “to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia that same day; and Flynn did not recall the Russian ambassador subsequently telling him that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request.”
The document also says that Flynn falsely said he did not ask Kislyak to delay the vote on a pending United Nations Security Council resolution.
After his resignation, Flynn and his businesses quickly became a major interest of the House and Senate intelligence committee Russia probes. But in March, Flynn’s lawyer dropped a bombshell: “General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” attorney Robert Kelner said, adding that Flynn was seeking immunity in exchange for his testimony.
Committee leaders quickly rejected the offer. Both committees eventually subpoenaed Flynn and his lobbying business, and he provided documents to both the House and Senate panels in June. Flynn has not spoken to the congressional committees and has refused requests to appear voluntarily.