The most vulnerable figure in the Russia investigation right now is former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake devotes a column to the notion that Flynn has been unfairly tarnished for a series of crimes that have not been proven in a court of law. “Flynn has yet to be charged with a crime,” insists Lake. “If there is evidence that he betrayed his country, it has yet to be presented.”
This is a somewhat ironic defense of a man who brayed for the imprisonment of Hillary Clinton for sloppy email management even after the FBI cleared her. Obviously, Flynn’s deranged standards of justice should not become our standards of justice. And as a legal matter, he deserves his day in court. Nonetheless, it is customary for people who discuss politics to speak more colloquially about people who have obviously broken the law. And Flynn has obviously broken the law.
Charlie Savage has a helpful roundup of the various crimes of which Flynn stands accused. First, he has allegedly made false statements to the government about his dealings with Russia and Turkey in January and February of 2016, and then reportedly to the FBI earlier this year. Second, he accepted payments from a foreign government without getting permission, which is a requirement for retired military officers. (“As a former military officer, you simply cannot take money from Russia, Turkey or anybody else,” Representative Jason Chaffetz, not exactly an anti-Trump crusader, said in April. “And it appears as if he did take that money. It was inappropriate, and there are repercussions for the violation of law.”)
Third, Flynn failed to register as a foreign agent, as required by the Foreign Agents Registration Act. And fourth, he has refused to supply documents subpoenaed by Congress, though the legality of that is in dispute. (Flynn’s lawyer claims it is a part of his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination; it is not clear if that right goes beyond simply withholding testimony.)
Lake is correct that Flynn has yet to be charged with any of these crimes. But it seems a little precious that he objects to commentators (he names Morning Joe, The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza, and Stephen Colbert) discussing Flynn’s alleged crimes. Pundits have been discussing those crimes before authorities indicted Flynn for the same reason we have discussed Greg Gianforte’s assault of a reporter before police announced charges.
And what about Lake’s defense that, “If there is evidence that he betrayed his country, it has yet to be presented”? One could certainly argue that accepting unauthorized payments from a hostile foreign power is a kind of betrayal of his country. The reason the laws he has allegedly broken exist is to prevent unfriendly countries from buying up retired military officers or national security advisers. Flynn’s violations are not technical. His behavior the last few years is a walking advertisement for why there are rules against getting secret payments from other countries.
As for what exactly he did in return for the money he illegally collected, there is plenty of evidence for that, too. During the transition, Flynn reportedly spoke with Russia and undermined the diplomacy of the Obama administration, which was in the midst of imposing sanctions. He also delayed a military plan to lay siege to an ISIS stronghold in Raqqa — a delay that accorded with the interests of Turkey, which was paying him. I’m not sure what news stories Lake is reading when he writes, “None of the many news stories about Flynn’s contacts with Russians and Turks has accused him of being disloyal to his country.”
Of course, it’s possible that conviction played a role, even a decisive role, in Flynn changing American policy in pro-Russian and pro-Turkish ways. It’s impossible to prove motivation in a bribery case. But if you’re taking unauthorized and undisclosed money from foreign dictators, and doing their bidding in government, you are pretty definitely betraying your country. A national security adviser who’s deciding when and how to attack a deadly terrorist group that poses a threat to the United States should not be compromised by payments from a country that has very different interests.
Lock him up? That’s for the legal system to decide. In the meantime, the rest of us are free to form judgments based on the copious evidence at hand. Flynn is a curious nominee for martyrdom.
Watch Flynn go from “full confidence” to fired in less than 24 hours.