Washington — Michael Flynn, the retired general who vigorously campaigned at Donald Trump’s side and then served as his first national security adviser, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about reaching out to the Russians on Trump’s behalf and said members of the president’s inner circle were intimately involved with — and at times directing — his contacts.
His plea to a single felony count of false statements made him the first official of the Trump White House to be charged so far in the criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. And his action could be an ominous sign for a White House shadowed for the past year by investigations, turning Flynn into a potentially key government cooperator as prosecutors examine whether the Trump campaign and Russia worked together to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.
Friday’s developments don’t resolve the paramount question of possible Trump-Russia coordination in the campaign, but they do show that Flynn lied to the FBI about multiple conversations last December with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Court papers make clear that senior Trump transition officials were fully aware of Flynn’s outreach to Russian officials in the weeks before the inauguration.
The officials were not named in court papers, but people familiar with the case identified two of them to The Associated Press as Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and former Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland, now up for an ambassadorship.
That revelation moves the Russia investigation deeper into the White House. And, given the direct involvement of the transition team in Flynn’s calls with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the plea also raises questions about the accuracy of repeated assertions by the administration that Flynn had misled Mike Pence and other officials when he denied having discussed sanctions with the diplomat.
Flynn, the longtime soldier , stood quietly during his plea hearing except to answer brief questions from the judge. Flynn accepted responsibility for his actions in a written statement, though he said he had also been subjected to false accusations. He said, “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.”
A former Defense Intelligence Agency chief, Flynn was a considerably more vocal Trump surrogate during the campaign, known for leading rally crowds in “Lock her up” chants regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.
Though prosecutors also had investigated Flynn lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government, the fact that he was permitted to plead guilty to just one count, and faces a guideline range of zero to 6 months in prison, suggest that prosecutors see him as a valuable tool in their investigation and are granting a degree of leniency in exchange for cooperation.
White House lawyer Ty Cobb sought to distance the plea from Trump himself, saying: “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
Nonetheless, the Russia investigation has persistently followed Trump the first year of his presidency, angering the president and repeatedly distracting from his agenda. Flynn’s plea came as Republican senators labored to pass a far-reaching tax bill, which would be a significant victory for Trump.
On Friday, the president ignored reporters’ shouted questions as he welcomed the Libyan prime minister to the White House, and aides canceled media access to a later meeting between the two. He did appear briefly at an afternoon White House holiday reception for the media, where he offered season’s greetings and departed without addressing the Mueller investigation.
Early on in his administration, Trump had taken a particular interest in the status of the Flynn investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing in May precipitated the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, has said Trump asked him in a private Oval Office meeting to consider ending the investigation into Flynn. Comey has said he found the encounter so shocking that he prepared an internal memo about it.
Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI days after Trump’s inauguration, was forced to resign on Feb. 13 following news reports indicating that the Trump White House had been warned by Obama administration officials that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak and was therefore compromised and potentially vulnerable to blackmail.
White House officials including Pence, who had declared publicly that Flynn never discussed sanctions, said they had been misled.
The court case Friday concerns a series of conversations that Flynn had with Kislyak during the transition period between the November election and the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Prosecutors say Flynn on Dec. 29 spoke with an unnamed senior transition team official about what, if anything, to say about sanctions that had been imposed on Russia one day earlier by the Obama administration in retaliation for election interference. Flynn then requested the Russian ambassador “not escalate the situation” and respond “in a reciprocal manner,” a conversation that prosecutors say he then reported to transition team members.
Two former transition officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter, identified McFarlane as the unnamed official.
The court papers do not allege that there was anything illegal about Flynn’s conversations with the Russians — but his lies about the talks amounted to a felony.
Still, if the Trump transition made secret back-door assurances to Russian diplomats, that could potentially run afoul of the Logan Act, a 1799 law that bars private American citizens from attempting to intervene in “disputes or controversies” between the United States and foreign powers without government approval.
Another conversation with Kislyak occurred one week earlier after a “very senior member” of the presidential transition team directed Flynn to contact foreign government officials, including from Russia, about a U.N. Security Council resolution regarding Israeli settlements. That “very senior member” was identified to AP as Kushner by a former transition official.
In a striking rupture with past practice, the Obama administration refrained from vetoing the condemnation of the settlement expansion, opting instead to abstain. The rest of the 15-nation council, including Russia, voted unanimously against Israel. At the time, Israel was lobbying furiously against the resolution and the Trump team spoke up on behalf of the Jewish state.
Former U.S. officials and foreign diplomats said Kushner led the effort to defeat that U.N. vote.
During his conversation with Kislyak, prosecutors say, Flynn requested that Russia vote against or delay the resolution, though he admitted in his plea deal that he later lied to the FBI by saying he had not made that request.
Mueller’s team announced charges in October against three other Trump campaign officials, former chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, and a former campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his own foreign contacts.
Associated Press writers Zeke Miller, Jonathan Lemire, Michael Biesecker, Desmond Butler, Mary Clare Jalonick and Bloomberg News contributed to this report.
Key dates related to former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s interactions with Russian government officials:
■Dec. 21, 2016: The government of Egypt submits a resolution to the U.N. Security Council on the issue of Israeli settlements. A vote is planned for the next day.
■Dec. 22, 2016: A “very senior member” of the presidential transition team directs Flynn to contact officials with several foreign governments, including Russia, about the resolution. According to court papers, the transition official tells Flynn to see what the governments’ positions were on the resolution and to try to get them to delay the vote on the resolution or defeat it. Flynn then calls Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., and asks him to have Russia vote against or delay the resolution.
■Dec. 23, 2016: Kislyak tells Flynn that Russia would not vote against the resolution if it came to a vote.
■Dec. 28, 2016: President Barack Obama imposes sanctions on Russia in response to the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to court papers, Kislyak contacts Flynn.
■Dec. 29, 2016: Flynn calls a “senior official” on the presidential transition. Flynn and the official, who is with Trump and other senior advisers at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, discuss what, if anything, to tell Kislyak about the U.S. sanctions. Flynn also discusses the potential fallout from the sanctions and the view of members of the transition team at Mar-a-Lago that they “did not want Russia to escalate the situation.” Immediately after the call, Flynn calls Kislyak and requests that he not escalate the situation. Flynn reports the content of that call back to the transition official.
■Dec. 31, 2016: Kislyak tells Flynn that Russia has decided not to retaliate over the sanctions. Flynn conveys this back to senior members of Trump’s transition team.
■Jan. 15, 2017: Vice President Mike Pence says in an interview on “Face the Nation” that Flynn did not discuss U.S. sanctions with Kislyak.
■Jan. 20, 2017: Trump is inaugurated as president. Flynn formally becomes national security adviser.
■Jan. 24, 2017: Flynn is interviewed by FBI agents investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and contacts with Trump associates. According to court papers, Flynn lies to the agents about his contacts with Kislyak regarding the U.S. sanctions and the U.N. Security Council resolution.
■Jan. 26, 2017: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates alerts White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was potentially compromised and vulnerable to blackmail because of discrepancies between public assertions — including by Pence — that Flynn and Kislyak had not discussed sanctions and the reality of what occurred.
■Feb. 13, 2017: Trump forces Flynn to resign from his White House post. White House officials justified the firing by saying Flynn had misled them, including Pence, about whether he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Flynn’s firing came only after media reports about his contacts with Kislyak.
■Feb. 14, 2017: In an Oval Office meeting, Trump tells Comey he hopes that he can “let go” of an investigation into Flynn. Comey later says he interpreted the statement as a presidential directive. At the time, the FBI had an active investigation into whether Flynn had lied to its agents.
■March 7, 2017: Flynn and his firm, Flynn Intel Group, register with the Justice Department as foreign agents. The registration stems from Flynn’s lobbying and investigative research work for a Turkish businessman.
■May 9, 2017: Trump fires FBI Director James Comey.
■June 8, 2017: Comey testifies before the Senate intelligence committee about his meetings with Trump and what he interpreted as the president’s efforts to pressure him regarding the FBI investigation into Flynn.
■Friday: Flynn pleads guilty to a felony charge of lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.
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