Guilty As Flynn
Some time ago, when remarking on the size of the web Special Counselor Robert Mueller has spun, I came to the conclusion that no one in this White House would be safe. I said then that the law is like a web, what with its sticky ability to catch the little bugs but leave the big ones free. But as long as the web expands and extends its reach, no bug, no matter its size, will be safe from being snagged. This past week, Mueller caught another.
Following in the footsteps of Paul Manafort’s indictment and George Papadopoulos’s plea agreement, Mueller’s team announced on Friday that General Michael Flynn—President Trump’s short-lived National Security Advisor—would plead guilty to lying to the FBI. Ever since Manafort fell victim to the probe, incisive insiders thought Flynn would be next. In much the same way as Manafort had done, Flynn involved himself with unsavory characters overseas. He, like Manafort, held close relationships with foreign adversaries, including Turkey and Russia, and—also like Manafort—was compensated quite generously for his efforts.
After having been ousted from the Obama administration in 2014, Flynn eyed his opportunities in the east. There, in Eurasia, he found many eager sponsors and quickly became a sought-after emcee. At a celebratory dinner in Moscow, he was paid $45,000 to give a speech and was seated next to President Vladimir Putin. Doubtless an invaluable award, as Putin’s presence is a priceless entity. This was in 2015, and throughout the following year, the number of his foreign patrons and his income grew. Simultaneously, so too did his most profitable relationship—that with Donald Trump. Flynn was quickly becoming one of Trump’s favorite confidantes within a growing retinue of political tacticians and military men.
While his influence waxed at home, it soared overseas. Flynn joined a Dutch company called Inovo BV, which was little more than a cutout for the Erdogan government. He was paid nearly $600,000 for forwarding Turkey’s interests in the U.S. These messages were mostly to shine a favorable light on Recep Erdogan, Turkey’s despot who outlasted a “coup” (many skeptics think it was staged) so he might consolidate power and form a constitutionally-protected regime.
This occurred before President Trump was elected, and therefore before Michael Flynn held a legitimate role in the government; he was a private citizen at the time, if not a treasonous one. But his relationship with the Turkish government didn’t end with Trump’s successful election. As a part of the transition team, Flynn is alleged to have been offered upwards of $15 million by the Turkish government if he extradited the dissident cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Ever since the 2016 coup d’état, Erdogan has accused Gulen—who now leads an endangered life in Pennsylvania—as the man responsible for its incitement. Evidence of his role isn’t clear, however, and he claims not to be the culprit.
If this potentially lucrative proposal was indeed set before General Flynn, he would’ve been toeing dangerously close to a quid pro quo. Although an exchange was never made, it seems to have been heading in that direction. With Flynn’s prompting, the Trump administration was beginning to revisit the Gulen case and re-consider the sanctuary he’d been provided. In addition to this, Flynn attempted to sway the administration’s position as it pertained to the civil war in Syria in a way that would’ve benefitted Erdogan’s regime. As former national security advisor Susan Rice was leaving office, Flynn told her not to green light Obama’s plan to arm Kurdish rebels fighting ISIS militants in the region. The interdict was one that Turkey had hoped for, as the Kurds are a historic nuisance for the state. Arming them would only make matters worse.
Here we can almost see the strings that were pulling Flynn from afar. Like a puppet, he was strung up and dancing to a dragoman’s beat, beck and call, all the while preparing to serve an integral role in Trump’s cabinet. Unsurprisingly, for he surely knew that his international entanglements were wrong, Flynn failed to register as a foreign agent when he was officially named the national security advisor in January. It wasn’t until March 2016, that he did so retroactively.
But none of these improprieties eventually led to Friday’s guilty plea. No—on the contrary, what spelled his doom was something much less egregiously treasonous. For all he’d done hitherto, the worst charge was this: Flynn lied to the FBI about a conversation he’d had with a Russian diplomat. It was a lie he told first to Press Secretary Sean Spicer, and then to Vice President Pence, and finally (and fatally) to FBI agents.
In the midst of readying himself for Trump’s presidency during the transitional period between the election and inauguration, Flynn held an undisclosed tête-à-tête with Sergey Kislyak. Kislyak, you’ll recall, has been the nasty little thorn in many Republicans’ sides. It was he who Attorney General Jeff Sessions surreptitiously spoke with, which in turn forced his recusal on all things related to Russia.
The topic of Flynn and Kislyak’s conversation was about the sanctions President Obama had slapped on Russia. Following an exhaustive internal investigation, in which numerous federal agencies partook, the unanimous conclusion was that Russia meddled in the campaign. To what end is still unknown, but the fact that the Kremlin involved itself remains irrefutable. In light of these findings, and in defense of a fallen Democrat, Obama punished Russia by restricting visas and limiting business opportunities for those with dealings in Moscow. These were the second set of sanctions Obama had levied against Russia; the first came after the Crimean annexation.
Hoping to step in and ease the hostilities, and perhaps reach an unprecedented rapprochement with the Russian state, Flynn contacted Kislyak to discuss the sanctions. Putin was expected to fire back at Washington with sanctions of his own, but they curiously never came. For this, we can thank Flynn. It was General Flynn’s job to assuage Putin and Kislyak about the nettling sanctions. Flynn assured them that with the changing of the guards, the sanctions would all-but disappear. Kislyak, sanguine at the prospect of less severe sanctions, told Flynn that the Russian response would only be “moderate”.
News quickly spread that Flynn had attempted this quiet arrangement. Reporters, smelling blood in the water, began hammering cabinet members from all angles. They asked Sean Spicer if Flynn had a conversation with Kislyak about the sanctions. Spicer responded by saying he did not. Two days later, Vice President Pence appeared on Face the Nation, where he too denied the assertion.
The FBI then called upon General Flynn—who at this time was formally head of the NSA—to explain just what transpired. Evidently still feeling the pressure of the onslaught around him, Flynn perpetuated his lie. Above all else, this was Flynn’s fatal mistake and it augured his eventual fall. One simply does not lie to the FBI and live long to tell the tale.
It wasn’t until February 9th, a few days after his meeting with the FBI, that his lie was exposed. The Washington Post reported that Flynn had not only lied, but that the White House knew about his perfidy for some time. Vice President Pence was made to look like a fool and Flynn was made to look like he had something to hide. This last part is perhaps the most puzzling of all. Although Flynn went about his conversation with Kislyak in a clandestine way, it’s difficult to see the ways in which it was illicit. Flynn was a prominent member of the transition team and reached out in this capacity. What he did not do was make contact with Kislyak while a member of Trump’s campaign. If he had done this, as ABC News’ Brian Ross had hastily and erroneously reported, Flynn would be on the hook for attempting collusion. But Trump wasn’t a candidate at the time of Flynn’s audience with Kislyak, and unpopular though it might be to say, there appears to have been no overt crime committed by Flynn.
Nevertheless, Flynn felt it necessary to reinvent the truth. Instead of saying what actually took place and facing a temporary political backlash but no further repercussions, he opted to lie to the FBI. More importantly, though, he was found out. He resigned under duress, ostensibly for having lied to Mike Pence, although the administration knew otherwise. The reason all along was for having lied to the FBI.
The next day, February 14th, President Trump met with then-FBI director James Comey. As they spoke, the topic of Michael Flynn arose. It is here that Trump is alleged to have asked Comey to lift the bureau’s investigation into Flynn and to famously “see his way clear”. Many thought this proposal tantamount to obstruction of justice, although Comey never acted on the president’s sneaky suggestion.
Shortly thereafter, James Comey was fired and Robert Mueller was handed the reigns to be the special counsel. This is where we find ourselves today. Flynn, the man who rang the “lock her up” tocsin for nearly a year, now faces the real threat of being imprisoned for a long time. His crime—which official reads as “willfully and knowingly making false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations to the FBI”— carries a maximum sentence of five years and a $250,000 fine.
That’s quite a sum of money, especially for a career civil servant who’s spent the past nine months corralling and funding a personal legal team. And as anyone who’s faced dire straits can attest, desperation can lead to ugly bargains. Most observers think this charge will be reduced, with the assumption being that Flynn will cooperate with Mueller’s inquiries. Therein lies a potential danger for President Trump. It appears as though Mueller is going to parlay what he’s won with his indictment of Manafort and Gates and his capture of Papadopoulos and now Flynn into catching the biggest, baddest beetle of all. That, of course, is President Trump.