Retired General Michael T. Flynn, who was President Donald Trump’s national security adviser for 24 days, may now be the administration’s biggest existential threat. He has pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016, when Trump was president-elect but Barack Obama was still the president. His plea deal offers tantalizing clues about where Special Counsel Robert Mueller might steer his investigation next.
1. Did Flynn implicate others?
That’s for Mueller and his team to know, and the rest of the political world to speculate on. In court, Flynn admitted contacting a senior Trump transition team official -- not identified by name -- for guidance before talking to the Russian ambassador about sanctions levied by the Obama administration in response to Russia’s meddling in the American election. Flynn also said he previously relayed to the ambassador a request from a “very senior” Trump transition team official that Russia oppose an Egypt-sponsored United Nations resolution concerning Israeli settlements. That official was Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, according to a report by Bloomberg View columnist Eli Lake.
2. Are such back-channel talks illegal?
They could be a violation of the Logan Act, an obscure law that prohibits private U.S. citizens from attempting to negotiate America’s disputes with foreign governments. On the books since 1799, it’s seldom if ever enforced because of the difficulty in defining what is a negotiation as opposed to an informal and preliminary discussion, experts say. Washington white-collar defense lawyer Solomon Wisenberg dismissed the notion that anyone would face liability under that law, which he called a "dead letter." Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at George Washington University law school, said it’s unlikely that a threatened prosecution under the Logan Act was enough to get Flynn to plead guilty, which suggests his lies to investigators were an attempt to conceal a wider array of contacts and dealings with Russia.
3. What suggests Flynn has useful information against others?
Even though Flynn admitted to lying on federal disclosure forms about his work for the Turkish government, he wasn’t charged with that. Plus, his plea agreement suggests his punishment could be six months or less in prison, even though the statutory maximum penalty for lying to federal agents is five years. That apparent lenience suggests Flynn had something, or someone, of value to offer Mueller, said Harold Krent, dean of the Chicago-Kent College of Law. "People are sweating in the administration right now," said Krent, author of a 2005 book on presidential power. He added, "The net is tightening around somebody" almost certainly superior to Flynn.
4. What comes next?
Flynn’s confession will likely prompt Mueller’s squad to reexamine statements made by Kushner, Attorney General Jeff Sessions and others who have been questioned in the course of Mueller’s probe or those pending in the U.S. Senate or House of Representatives. George Papadopoulos, once a low-level foreign policy adviser for the campaign, admitted to lying to federal agents about Russia contacts in October. He, too, is cooperating with Mueller.
5. Could Flynn lead prosecutors to Trump?
Remember that Trump fired FBI Director James Comey after imploring him, unsuccessfully, to drop the criminal investigation of Flynn. That, and the president’s frequent carping about Sessions recusing himself from the investigation -- leaving him unable to protect the president -- has sparked suspicion that Trump himself is attempting to obstruct the ongoing Russia probe. While that may make for good chatter, putting together such a case may be difficult, since each of those acts by Trump "has an alternative explanation," Krent said. Trump also could be open to a charge of obstruction if he directed anybody else to lie to federal agents or under oath to Congress.
6. Are there possible charges besides obstruction of justice?
If Flynn violated the Logan Act by negotiating with Russia, whoever was directing him to do so could be charged with criminal conspiracy, according to Stanford University law school professor David Sklansky.
7. How about colluding with Russia in the 2016 election?
Though that’s where this investigation started, Wisenberg noted that Flynn’s plea agreement and accompanying statement of facts -- which protect him from further prosecution for the things to which he’s confessed -- were devoid of any mention of campaign collusion. That could mean Flynn had no knowledge of the subject. "I have a feeling that campaign collusion is going nowhere," Wisenberg said.
The Reference Shelf
- A QuickTake Q&A on the Trump-Russia saga up until now.
- A 1995 Congressional Research Service report explains practices and procedures in congressional inquiries.
- Back in 2016, Flynn talked about accusations against Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and said: "When you are given immunity, that means that you have probably committed a crime."