What Michael Flynn’s guilty plea means in Mueller’s Russia probe

WASHINGTON — Michael T. Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, was charged and pleaded guilty Friday to making false statements. Flynn said he had agreed to cooperate with Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, in his broader investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

Here are excerpts from court documents and what they mean:

A pile of legal woes yields a single charge

The Special Counsel informs the Court:

COUNT ONE

On or about January 24, 2017, defendant MICHAEL T. FLYNN did willfully and knowingly make materially false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations in a matter within the jurisdiction of the executive branch of the Government of the United States, to wit, the defendant falsely stated and represented to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, in Washington, D.C., …

Analysis: Mueller is charging Flynn with a single count of lying to the FBI during a Jan. 24 interview, under a plea agreement in which he could serve up to six months in prison and pay a fine of $500 to $9,500. What is most notable here is all the other offenses from which Flynn escaped charges. Those other potential charges were the leverage that Mueller successfully used to pressure Flynn to flip and cooperate in exchange for leniency.

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It had been clear for months that Flynn faced serious legal jeopardy on a range of issues, including work his lobbying firm performed for Turkey without registering as agents of a foreign power. Earlier this year, Flynn belatedly filed a Foreign Agents Registration Act disclosure with the Justice Department. But even though Mueller has obtained an indictment against Paul Manafort Jr., Trump’s former campaign chairman, in part for violating that same law, he did not charge Flynn under it.

Moreover, a court filing mentions that Flynn made several false statements in his belated foreign-agent registration, such as “omitting that officials from the Republic of Turkey provided supervision and direction over the Turkey project.” But Flynn faced no separate charges based on those lies. Nor did he face separate false-statement charges for failing to disclose various contacts with Russian officials on official forms associated with his application for a security clearance, and in response to questions by officials processing that application. Each potential false statement charge could have carried up to five years in prison.

Talking sanctions with the Russian ambassador

False Statements Regarding FLYNN’s Request to the Russian Ambassador that Russia Refrain from Escalating the Situation in Response to U.S. Sanctions against Russia

3. On or about January 24, 2017, FLYNN agreed to be interviewed by agents from the FBI (“January 24 voluntary interview”). During the interview, FLYNN falsely stated that he did not ask Russia’s Ambassador to the United States (“Russian Ambassador”) to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia. FLYNN also falsely stated that he did not remember a follow-up conversation in which the Russian Ambassador stated that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of FLYNN’s request.

Analysis: Flynn has now admitted that he lied when he told the FBI that he had not discussed sanctions with Sergey I. Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the United States, during the transition period. In fact, as Flynn has now acknowledged, after outgoing President Barack Obama signed an executive order on Dec. 28 imposing the sanctions on Russia in retaliation for its election interference, Flynn — at the request of an unnamed transition official — asked Kislyak for Russia to consider reacting with restraint.

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Their conversations about sanctions have been well documented, and helped catalyze the chain of events that led to Mueller’s appointment. On Dec. 30, for example, after President Vladimir Putin of Russia announced that his country would not retaliate at that time for the sanctions, Trump wrote on Twitter: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!” On Jan. 15, Vice President-elect Mike Pence publicly denied that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak.

But soon after the FBI interview in which Flynn falsely said the same thing, Sally Q. Yates, an Obama-era holdover serving as acting attorney general, warned the Trump White House that Russia could blackmail Flynn over having lied. Trump soon fired Yates over an unrelated matter, but did not act against Flynn until The Washington Post reported nearly two weeks later that intelligence officials knew that Flynn and the Russian ambassador had talked about sanctions, leaving Kislyak with the impression that the Trump administration would revisit the issue after taking office. Trump then fired Flynn, ostensibly for having misled Pence.

Trump later pressured James B. Comey, then the FBI director, to go easy on Flynn, according to Comey, before eventually firing him over his handling of the Russia investigation — a step that led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.

Asking Russia to thwart U.S. policy at the U.N.

During the January 24 voluntary interview, FLYNN made additional false statements about calls he made to Russia and several other countries regarding a resolution submitted by Egypt to the United Nations Security Council on December 21, 2016. Specifically FLYNN falsely stated that he only asked the countries’ positions on the vote, and that he did not request that any of the countries take any particular action on the resolution. FLYNN also falsely stated that the Russian Ambassador never described to him Russia’s response to FLYNN’s request regarding the resolution.

Analysis: Flynn has also admitted lying to the FBI about asking Russia and several other countries for help in thwarting an Obama administration foreign policy decision to permit the U.N. Security Council to pass a resolution condemning Israel for building settlements in Palestinian territory. Russia nevertheless declined to delay or veto the measure, which the Security Council passed despite lobbying by Israel and the objections from the Trump transition team.

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Some commentators have raised the question of whether such efforts by Flynn and the Trump transition team to lobby foreign governments in ways that conflicted with the official policy of the United States under the Obama administration before they took power were a violation of the Logan Act. That is a 1799 law that bars private citizens from interfering with diplomatic relations between the United States and foreign governments. But this statute has raised constitutional concerns and is generally considered a dead letter, meaning it remains on the books but is defunct.

Where will Mueller go next?

On or about December 22, 2016, a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team directed FLYNN to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, to learn where each government stood on the resolution and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution.

On or about December 29, 2016, FLYNN called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (“PTT official”), who was with other senior members of the Presidential Transition Team at the Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions.

Analysis: In trying to figure out what happened with Russia and the Trump campaign, Mueller appears to be following a strategy of starting at the fringes and moving inward, pressuring people to cooperate. Flynn may, of course, have already given information to Mueller’s team that is not mentioned in these court filings. But one question raised by the documents is who the unnamed people are with whom he spoke about these matters — and what those people told federal investigators.

For example, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and close adviser, reportedly took the lead for the transition team on the U.N. Security Council resolution about Israel. In November, Mueller’s investigators interviewed Kushner about Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador.