TV cameras swarmed a federal courthouse on Friday to witness former national security adviser Michael Flynn arrive to plead guilty to a felony count of lying to the FBI about conversations he had with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The stunning news comes only a month after a federal grand jury indicted two top Trump campaign staffers—Paul Manafort and Rick Gates—on charges related to their foreign lobbying work, while lower-level aide George Papadopoulos also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Flynn is now cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and the court documents say he had called Kislyak on the orders of an unnamed senior transition official. What does this latest development mean for Flynn and, more importantly, for President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly denied that his campaign had any improper dealings with Russia? And what’s Mueller’s next move? We asked legal experts—practicing attorneys, law school professors, legal consultants—to interpret today’s bombshell news. Here is what they told us. —Taylor Gee
‘Flynn holds the key to who knew what when’
Asha Rangappa, associate dean at Yale Law School.
With Flynn’s plea deal, Mueller has nowhere to go but up—up the chain, that is. As the former national security adviser, Flynn is a critical link tying contacts with Russia to Trump’s inner circle, and possibly to the president himself. The statement of facts included with Flynn’s plea deal states that Flynn was essentially a go-between from top members of the Trump team to the Russian ambassador on the subject of President Barack Obama’s sanctions and on Russia’s vote on a United Nations resolution presented by Egypt. The senior members of the Trump transition to whom Flynn was reporting back his contacts with Russian officials are not named in the statement, but are likely Mueller’s next targets.
As for Trump, his knowledge of Flynn’s contacts with Russia (and other potentially illegal acts to which Flynn did not plead guilty) could not only tie him to the collusion case taking clearer shape, but also to the obstruction of justice case against the president specifically. After all, Trump’s main goal, starting with his initial meetings with former FBI Director James Comey, was to have the case against Flynn dropped. If Trump was knowingly trying to keep the FBI from discovering Flynn’s activities, that would seal the deal for Mueller’s obstruction case. For both collusion and obstruction, Flynn holds the key to who knew what when, and Mueller now has his cooperation.
‘Mueller will try to use Flynn to go after bigger fish. But there aren’t many fish bigger than Flynn.’
Orin Kerr, professor of law, The George Washington University.
This is a fast-moving story, and the meaning of the plea may take a while to become clear. At this point, though, the plea seems tremendously important. That’s true for two reasons. First, Flynn was a central player in the Trump transition team and he was a close adviser to the president. He’s now cooperating with the special counsel, which probably means that Mueller will try to use Flynn to go after bigger fish. But there aren’t many fish bigger than Flynn. The list of likely targets at this point has to be very small, and it likely includes the president’s inner circle and the president himself.
Second, Flynn’s plea brings the investigation much closer to the question of cooperation between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. We now know that there was a working relationship between the Trump transition and the Russian government in December 2016, just a month after the election. That raises the question: When did that working relationship start? And what was the scope of their cooperation? The person who knows that best may be Michael Flynn. And he’s now cooperating with the special counsel. That’s big.
‘Flynn is only valuable if he can provide self-proving information or leads’
Alan Dershowitz, emeritus professor of law at Harvard University
A bought witness who has pleaded guilty to lying will not have much credibility. He is only valuable if he can provide self-proving information or leads. What I don’t understand is why Flynn would lie about urging the Russians to veto or delay the Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. That lame-duck resolution wrongly tied the hands of the incoming president and the request was entirely proper. Perhaps Flynn mistakenly thought the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in relation to a dispute with the United States, was still good law—which it isn’t.
‘As big as a day as this was for Mueller’s investigation, expect more and bigger ones’
Norman Eisen, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, chief White House ethics lawyer from 2009 to 2011, and ambassador to the Czech Republic from 2011 to 2014
“If you don’t want to do the time, you have to drop a dime” goes the jailhouse saying. How ironic that Michael Flynn, who encouraged the chants of “lock her up” at the Republic National Convention, is now following prison maxims in negotiating a plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller. Having worked with and against Mueller, I know he is resolute in his pursuit of justice. The information and statement of the offense makes clear that Flynn has not just “dropped a dime” but a whole roll of them, implicating multiple other Trump transition officials with knowledge of his conversations with Russia and other foreign governments. As big a day as this was for Mueller’s investigation—and it was the biggest yet—expect more and bigger ones.
‘We honestly don’t know how far this will go’
Laurie Levenson, professor at Loyola Law School
Flynn’s guilty plea means that Mueller’s investigation has credibility. He and his team are working their way up the ladder to see who in the Trump campaign, transition team or White House were involved in conversations with the Russians. Undoubtedly, Flynn’s plea is not the end of the road for this investigation. Rather, it is an opportunity to use Flynn’s status as an insider to explore who else close to the president participated in conversations with the Russians and the motivations for those conversations. Was there a deal to ease sanctions in exchange for Russians helping Trump get elected? Have others lied about their contacts (or lack of contacts) with foreign officials? We honestly don’t know how far this will go. However, given the lies and cover-up, there is still a lot of motivation for Mueller and his team to aggressively pursue all leads.
‘Flynn’s testimony is likely to implicate someone of great importance’
Richard Painter, professor of law at the University of Minnesota and former chief White House ethics lawyer under George W. Bush
Prosecutors don’t generally offer plea deals as generous as this one unless the defendant offers valuable information implicating someone higher up in the conspiracy than the defendant. Given that Flynn was very high up in the Trump campaign and in the White House, that means his testimony is likely to implicate someone of great importance. Mueller’s objective is to get that testimony in the record, and finish getting testimony from other witnesses, so that other indictments can be filed. And of course, he needs to do this without getting fired. President Trump needs to know that firing Mueller, or handing out pardons in the midst of the investigation, would likely trigger a constitutional crisis as Republicans will join Democrats in calling for his removal from office.
‘Flynn’s decision to plead guilty should send chills through the White House’
Mark Zaid, national security attorney in Washington, D.C.
Flynn’s decision to plead guilty today to a single count of making false statements (18 U.S.C. 1001) should be sending chills through the inner sanctum of the White House. Several issues jump to the forefront in the wake of this voluntary plea, which could land Flynn in prison for up to six months. It once again defies logic that a former senior, experienced government official would have believed it to be a good strategy to lie to agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of a voluntary interview.
This plea agreement seemingly insulates Flynn from further prosecution by the special counsel for any past offenses, to include most importantly his contacts with foreign governments, notably the Republic of Turkey, and presumably also his trip to Russia at the invitation of the Russia Today network. There are numerous reasons why no criminal charges might have arisen from these activities, but one of the most likely is that this was the result of a trade Flynn agreed to as part of his full cooperation with the special counsel as to what he saw, heard, did and learned during his time with President Trump and his innermost circle. Of course, the key question on everyone’s mind now is who was the “senior Trump official” that Flynn communicated with on Dec. 29, 2016, at Mar-a-Lago, where President-elect Trump was staying, concerning his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States. That conversation alone does not mean any type of crime was committed by this unnamed individual, whose identity no doubt will soon be learned, but the penalties from the special counsel’s investigation do not just cross the legal realm, they have political repercussions as well that could be just as severe.
‘This investigation has a long way to go’
Alex Whiting, professor at Harvard Law School focusing on domestic and international criminal prosecution issues, and a former federal prosecutor
Flynn’s plea and cooperation agreement is a very significant development in the Mueller investigation for at least three reasons. First, Flynn admits that when he spoke with Russian Ambassador Kislyak in December 2016, in violation of the Logan Act, about sanctions imposed on Russia and a vote concerning Israeli settlements, he did so under the direction of senior Trump transition team officials. It is difficult to believe that both Trump and Pence were unaware of Flynn’s interventions with the Russians. Second, it seems that Flynn got a very good deal today, indicating that he is offering extremely important information as part of his cooperation.
Of course, if Flynn fails to fulfill his end of the bargain and does not provide full cooperation, Mueller can tear up the agreement and charge him with all available crimes. But the fact that Mueller agreed to just one charge with a low penalty indicates that Flynn has a lot to offer. Trump officials and the president himself have to be feeling extremely nervous about this development. After all, today’s plea is important for the ongoing investigation of obstruction of justice by Trump. Remember that Trump went to great lengths to try to shut down the Flynn investigation. Now we may know why. If today’s reports that Flynn has direct evidence against Trump are accurate, it would suggest that Trump was seeking to end the Flynn probe to save himself, and that would plainly be obstruction of justice. This investigation still has a long way to go, and it seems likely that additional officials will be getting a knock on the door sooner or later from Mueller’s team.
‘Flynn wasn’t flying solo’
David Sklansky, professor at Stanford Law School
This is a major development. Flynn has now admitted that he had direct conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about American sanctions, and about an important United Nations vote, in the closing weeks of the Obama administration, and that he then lied about those conversations when he was interviewed by the FBI. Moreover, the statement of facts that Mueller’s office filed in court in support of Flynn’s guilty plea makes clear that Flynn wasn’t flying solo: He kept other senior members of Trump transition team in the loop about his conversations with Kislyak, and some of those contacts were actually directed by someone the pleading describes as a “very senior member” of the Trump transition team.
So this is a defendant, and now a cooperating witness, who, at a minimum, was directly involved in contacts with the Russian government on behalf of the Trump transition team and who then lied about those contacts in an effort to cover them up, and who may have been the focus of personal efforts by the president to obstruct justice. He can hardly be dismissed by Trump and his associates as a bit player; he’s a very major player. Where Mueller and his team go from here depends on what they’ve learned and will continue to learn—from conversations with Flynn and otherwise—about potential crimes within the ambit of their investigation. But it seems very, very unlikely to end with Flynn.
‘Flynn’s guilty plea is the tip of the iceberg’
Jennifer Taub, professor of law at Vermont Law School.
Flynn’s guilty plea is the tip of the iceberg. This is a modest plea to a single count of making false statements. Notably, the subject matter of the plea is very narrow. It does not touch upon the alleged plot by Flynn and his son to forcibly remove cleric Fethullah Gulen from the United States and deliver him to Turkey. Also, the charging document is not an indictment. This means that Flynn waived his right to a grand jury. Taken together, the modest plea and the waiver suggest that Flynn is cooperating with Robert Mueller.
‘He wouldn’t have gotten such a good deal unless he had something to trade’
Paul Rosenzweig, former deputy assistant secretary for policy at the Department of Homeland Security and founder of RedBranch Consulting
The plea is a significant step for Mueller’s investigation for two reasons. First, and rather obviously, Flynn got a good deal. He wouldn’t have gotten such a good deal unless he had something to trade. We can’t know, of course, what that trade is for, but we can have fun speculating. Second, and a bit less obviously, Flynn would have been unlikely to make a deal if he were expecting a presidential pardon. The fact that he seems not to be is new information — though, again, what exactly that means is speculative. Finally, and just for fun, it makes me wonder what might happen if Mueller ever called the Russian ambassador as a witness …
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