Former national security adviser Michael Flynn brought the investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election to President Trump's inner circle on Friday, promising to give prosecutors information about other senior aides as he pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI.
Flynn’s abrupt guilty plea is the dramatic culmination of an investigation Trump had once asked the FBI to drop. His cooperation means a top adviser in the campaign and the early days of his presidency is now providing evidence in an investigation that has cast a shadow over the president's first year in office. And it suggests that the investigation remains far from over.
Flynn is the fourth former Trump aide to face criminal charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, but the first to be prosecuted for things that happened during the Trump administration and the first to so directly bring the special counsel's case to the administration's door.
In court Friday morning, prosecutors prosecutors offered their first hint of the information Flynn might provide, saying that conversations he had with Russia's U.S. ambassador had been coordinated by a "senior official of the presidential transition."
In a court filing made public Friday, prosecutors alleged that Flynn “did willfully and knowingly make materially false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to FBI agents during an interview on Jan. 24 -- four days after he began serving in the White House -- about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in the weeks before Trump took office. Prosecutors charged that he falsely told FBI agents that he did not ask Kislyak to delay a vote on a pending United Nations Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlements.
That call, prosecutors said, was made at the direction of a "very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team." Prosecutors did not identify the official; the Associated Press and NBC News reported that it was Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner, citing unnamed officials. Kushner's lawyer could not be reached to comment on Friday.
Prosecutors also charged that Flynn lied to agents about a Dec. 29 conversation about how Russia might respond to sanctions the U.S. government had levied over its election meddling. President Obama imposed those sanctions Dec. 28; the same day, Kislyak contacted Flynn to discuss how the Russian government would respond.
The next day, Flynn called a "senior official of the Presidential Transition Team" at Trump's private Mar-a-Lago resort "to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. sanctions," according to a court filing signed by Flynn and prosecutors. Immediately after that call, Flynn called Kislyak and asked that Russia "not escalate the situation."
Russian President Vladimir Putin said the following day that his government would not retaliate for the sanctions. Trump praised Putin's move on Twitter, writing "I always knew he was very smart!"
While incoming presidents traditionally have calls with world leaders during the transition, it is unusual for his aides to begin conducting foreign policy of any kind before the inauguration.
After pleading guilty, Flynn issued a personal statement that said, "I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right. My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel's Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country."
Flynn, a former Army general and intelligence agency head was widely known to have been under scrutiny over his contacts with Russian officials before Trump assumed the presidency. He also had faced scrutiny over his business dealings, including $530,000 in earnings from a Dutch firm with ties to the Turkish government, and payment for his 2015 Moscow speech.
Flynn had not registered as a foreign agent – a legal requirement – when he accepted money from the Dutch company and only disclosed the payments after registering retroactively amid news reports of the failing. Flynn’s attorney has maintained that his client had “fully” informed the Defense Department of his trip to Russia. He registered with the Justice Department after he was ousted from the Trump administration.
Flynn acknowledged in a court filing that his filing was "materially false," though prosecutors did not charge him for it.
The administration quickly sought to distance itself from its former national security adviser on Friday. In a statement, White House lawyer Ty Cobb described the former Trump confidante as "a former National Security Adviser at the White House for 25 days and a former Obama administration official." Nothing about Flynn's guilty plea, he said, "implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn."
Flynn headed the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama while a three-star Army general.
But in a court filing, prosecutors went out of their way to highlight the former general's close connection to Trump, pointing out that he served as a "surrogate and national security adviser" for his campaign and a "senior member" of his transition team before becoming his top national security aide as president.
Trump abruptly canceled a planned press event Friday. Reporters assembled just outside the Oval Office for a photo opportunity with Trump and the Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj were told to return to the briefing room.
Democratic lawmakers seized on Flynn's deal Friday. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee that is conducting its own review of Russian meddling means Mueller "has found illegal behavior stretching into the senior most levels of the White House." Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the senior Democrat on the Judiciary Committee, which is also investigating, said "these investigations must be allowed to continue without interference." Republican lawmakers mostly did not to comment.
Flynn's agreement to cooperate with prosecutors, which he signed Thursday, appeared to have come together swiftly. A friend of Flynn's, Robert "Rocky" Kempenaar, said the retired general expressed "anger" at a dinner the two of them shared in their home state of Rhode Island that his son had been drawn into Mueller's investigation.
"He was pissed off," Kempenaar said of his friend. "He said he wouldn't cooperate with the prosecutor. He was mad that they were trying to drag his son into it. He thought that was dirty."
But on Friday morning, Flynn arrived at the federal courthouse in Washington wearing a dark suit with a blue and white striped tie and took a different course. He gave short answers to U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras's questions; his attorneys, standing on either side of him, occasionally put their hands on his back.
"“Mr. Flynn, how do you plead to count one of the information?" Contreras asked.
“Guilty, your honor," Flynn replied.
After the judge accepted his plea, Flynn returned to the defendant’s table, put on a pair of reading glasses and signed some paperwork before being escorted out of the courthouse by U.S. Marshals. He was released without bail.
In a written plea agreement, prosecutors said Flynn likely faces up to six months in prison under federal sentencing rules, and potentially less if investigators are satisfied with the extent of his cooperation. He will not be sentenced until he is finished cooperating.
Trump fired Flynn in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian officials. Pence publicly announced that Flynn assured him the subject of sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia were not raised in his conversations with Kislyak after the election. Authorities who had monitored communications involving foreign diplomats knew that was not the case.
The day after Flynn was sacked, then-FBI director Comey said Trump pressured him to end the bureau’s criminal investigation. Comey, who was himself fired in May, testified to a Senate panel this year that Trump told him Flynn was “a good guy” and that “I hope you can let this go.” Comey said he took the remarks as an instruction, but did not obey it.
At a news conference the following day, Trump praised Flynn as "a wonderful man" and said "I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases."
Mueller’s investigators have separately been gathering records about Trump’s decision to fire Comey.
As news of Flynn's cooperation spread, Comey quoted a biblical passage on Twitter: "But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream."
The White House had expressed confidence in recent weeks that Mueller's investigation was nearing its end. Flynn's cooperation makes that "extremely unlikely," Georgetown University law professor Julie O'Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor, said. Among other things, she said, there would be little reason for prosecutor to secure Flynn's help if they were not still pursing other targets.
"Mueller would never buy a pig in a poke," she said. "He would not give this cooperation deal if Flynn didn’t have something to offer."
Mueller’s office has already filed charges against Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an associate, Rick Gates. Another campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, that he lied to FBI agents about his contacts with a professor he believed "had substantial connections to Russian government officials" during the campaign. The professor offered him "dirt" — in the form of thousands of emails — on Trump’s election opponent, Hillary Clinton.
In court filings, prosecutors said that Papadopoulos had agreed to cooperate with Mueller’s investigation.