WASHINGTON ― One of the ways the White House brushed aside the first three indictments in the Russia investigation was by noting they weren’t directed at anyone serving in the administration. George Papadopoulos and Paul Manafort were on the campaign ― in limited roles, officials claimed ― and Rick Gates was simply Manafort’s business partner.
Special counsel Robert Mueller’s latest announcement hits closer to home. On Friday, he charged former national security adviser Michael Flynn with lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government.
In the campaign, Flynn was one of the first people to give Donald Trump some national security credibility, at a time when the rest of the foreign policy establishment was running away from him. He became one of Trump’s most outspoken campaign surrogates, and in return, Trump made him his national security adviser when he became president.
The president, often known for feuding with and discarding his employees, remained extremely loyal to Flynn ― even when he was warned that Flynn could be a liability.
“A lot of people in the White House don’t want anything to do with Flynn,” a White House official told Politico in May. ”But Trump loves him. He thinks everyone is out to get him.”
White House lawyer Ty Cobb, nevertheless, tried his best to spin and downplay Flynn’s plea Friday, by saying he wasn’t national security adviser for very long, and he was an “Obama administration official”:
Today, Michael Flynn, a former National Security Advisor at the White House for 25 days during the Trump Administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI.
The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.
Two days after the November election, President Barack Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn. Obama had fired him from his job as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Trump appointed Flynn to the high-ranking job anyway.
So Cobb is right that Flynn served in the Obama administration. But even when Obama tried to help his successor out by urging him to cut ties with Flynn, Trump refused to listen.
Then shortly after Trump took office, on Jan. 26, acting Attorney General Sally Yates became concerned that Vice President Mike Pence was publicly denying that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with that country’s ambassador before Trump was inaugurated.
Yates told the White House official that Flynn was lying to them; federal officials had evidence that he had, indeed, discussed sanctions. She warned them that he could be subject to blackmail from the Russians and therefore a national security risk.
Nevertheless, the White House kept him on board as national security adviser. Trump fired him only after the news of Yates’ warning became public. Trump later fired Yates for refusing to defend his travel ban.
Despite knowing about Flynn’s lying, Trump continued to defend him. Former FBI Director James Comey said when he met with Trump on Feb. 14, the president asked him to ease up on Flynn.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go,” Comey recalled Trump saying.
Trump later fired Comey and has hinted that it was because he was upset the FBI director wouldn’t stop the Russia investigation.
Trump has held out hope that Flynn will be able to come back to him, and even told aides that he thinks firing him was a mistake.
“Trump feels really, really, really bad about firing him, and he genuinely thinks if the investigation is over Flynn can come back,” a White House official told The Daily Beast in May.
The fact that Flynn pleaded guilty to a relatively small charge seems to indicate that he is cooperating with Mueller ― and perhaps has given information that is far more damaging about people in Trump’s circle. The Associated Press reported Friday that Flynn admitted in his plea deal that Trump transition officials directed his contact with the Russians.