In the eyes of the law, Michael Flynn is now a convicted felon for lying to the FBI. His sentence is still a ways away, but chances are that his decision to cooperate with Robert Mueller, the special counsel prosecuting crimes related to Russia’s role in the presidential election, will result in light punishment. Self-interest is always a driving force behind pleading guilty. “Family is the most important thing in life,” tweeted Flynn’s son hours after his father’s guilty plea, alongside a picture of Flynn’s grandson. But for God and Mueller’s grace, the younger Flynn likely won’t be criminally exposed; when all is said and done, the older Flynn could receive only a probation sentence.
But Mueller is not one to give away his game. And unlike Donald Trump, the self-styled master deal-maker, the special counsel is also not one to make deals that won’t net him results — and results that are perfectly confined to his mandate to unravel the extent of the Kremlin’s hold on the Trump campaign. In a statement that shows Flynn will deliver, the retired lieutenant general vowed to “set things right” — a step he took “in the best interests of my family and of my country.” By framing his cooperation in terms of the things that matter most to him, including his long career in the military, Flynn has signaled that he won’t take a bullet for fools who haven’t done a thing for him or the country.
There are indications that Flynn is done with the White House, and that the White House is done with him. The Trump administration’s official response to Flynn’s guilty plea casts him as a “former Obama administration official,” who served as Trump’s national security adviser for just “25 days,” and is now a proven a liar. Donald McGahn, the White House counsel, reportedly feigned ignorance about Flynn’s lies to the FBI and shifted blame to an Obama holdover, Sally Yates, for not being candid with him about the crime. Trump’s own outrageous weekend tweet essentially admitting to obstruction of justice also throws Flynn under the bus. It’s no wonder Flynn now feels “abandoned” by a president who was once his fierce defender and comforter in the face of mounting legal troubles — even after his unceremonious ouster.
It’s hard to say what changed between Flynn and Trump in the months since Mueller’s appointment. But when even Fox News begins to sound dire about the president’s prospects in the slow and steady special-counsel investigation, there’s reason to believe that the public ain’t seen nothing yet. “Beyond this, the president of the United States has steadfastly, repeatedly, and consistently denied that he had any knowledge of any involvement with the Russians,” Andrew Napolitano, a longtime legal analyst, told Fox News’ Shepard Smith on Friday. “If General Flynn contradicts that in a credible way under oath, we have a very serious problem on our hands.”
Recall that it was the FBI’s open investigation into Flynn’s dealings with the Russian ambassador, then led by James Comey, that prompted Trump to demand loyalty from the fired FBI director during a private dinner at the White House; by then, Flynn had already lied to the FBI about his liaisons with Russian officials. When Comey refused — and refused to drop the Flynn matter, which was still ongoing — Trump got rid of him. Did the president do this out of impulse and fear that if Comey kept digging, he might discover that his campaign and transition team did, in fact, systematically reach out to and make nice with Russian interests? Could Trump have knowingly deputized Flynn to lead these efforts and not want anyone to find out? Or maybe Flynn was truly behind the search for Hillary Clinton’s missing emails from Russian hackers.
Mueller’s probe exists to get to the bottom of these questions. The fact that we know for a fact, through Flynn’s plea deal, that he actively worked with transition officials to undermine a sitting president’s sanctions against Russia shows that there’s much more to this unfolding case than meets the eye. Predictably, as it has done in the past with Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos, the Trump administration will deny and deflect that it ever had anything to do with those thus far prosecuted. They’ll all be derided as minor players with little access to or influence with the president — never mind that Trump himself once regarded Flynn a strong enough player to be considered a running mate.
Having been rolled over by the Trump train, Flynn now has every incentive to roll over on the Trump team. If that means implicating Jared Kushner, who is in legal jeopardy of his own, or Mike Pence, who appears to be testing out alibis in order to distance himself from lyin’ Flynn, there’s nothing stopping him. The trouble for the administration is that Mueller has proven so adept at keeping his cards close to him that when he’s ready to drop the next gauntlet the White House, once again, won’t know what hit it. Expect more confusion, plea deals, and offers to cooperate.
As of Saturday morning, Trump seemed unfazed by Flynn’s disloyalty, insisting that “collusion” is not a thing to be worried about. I’ll go ahead and add that, legalistically speaking, collusion is not even crime. But if his unhinged weekend tweets are any indication, the Russia investigation is no doubt consuming him. What Trump and others in his circle should be worried about is that even efforts to conceal and cover up noncrimes can amount to indictable offenses, including and up to obstruction of justice. Since the Trump administration isn’t exactly a model of prudence and backstabbings could be in the offing, Mueller may have his work cut out for him.