Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI in a plea agreement with special counsel Bob Mueller. For future generations, it may well be remembered as the beginning of the end for the Trump presidency.
Flynn’s plea deal confirms what many of us had long suspected and was reported earlier this year — that he lied to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.
According to court documents from the special counsel, Flynn was directed to reach out to the Russians by “a senior official of the Trump transition team.”
In addition, Flynn was also instructed by a member of the transition team to contact foreign governments, including Russia, regarding an upcoming UN resolution regarding Israeli settlements and “influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution.”
That raises the question: Who is the senior transition official who told Flynn to do this? Why did Flynn lie about it? Perhaps most important, considering Flynn’s vulnerability on a number of criminal charges — from violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act to potentially money laundering — how was he able to get such a good deal from Mueller’s office?
The likeliest answer to the last question is that he gave Mueller a much bigger fish in his plea agreement.
There really are only two people who are bigger potential targets for Mueller than Flynn — ordered him to reach out to the Russians — Jared Kushner and Donald Trump.
Kushner, it seems, could be in the greatest immediate jeopardy. If, as now is being reported, he was the transition official who instructed Flynn to make these calls, he could well be the next domino to fall. His problems would only be compounded if he lied when he was questioned about it by Mueller’s office last week.
The other senior administration official who could be on the hook is Vice President Mike Pence, who was the head of the Trump transition team. We know from Friday’s court documents that Flynn was in regular communication with transition officials about his Russian contacts, but if the White House is to be believed, Flynn was fired 24 days into the Trump administration because he lied to Pence about this matter. So we’re supposed to believe that Flynn openly discussed his conversations with Kislyak but kept the vice president and the head of the transition in the dark. That doesn’t pass the smell test.
But of course the real issue here is Trump. It seems unimaginable that little old Jared Kushner was directing Mike Flynn on his own and not without input from the president-elect.
Beyond that issue there is the larger question of whether covering up the Russia contacts during the transition could form the basis of an obstruction of justice charge. Indeed, Trump’s Oval Office request to FBI director Jim Comey last spring was not to lay off Trump, but rather to lay off Mike Flynn. Why would he have done that? Friday’s guilty plea offered one likely explanation: Trump didn’t want it to come out that he had instructed his foreign policy aides to reach out to the Russians and then lie about it to the FBI.
Whatever the case, there is no question that Flynn’s flip paces Trump squarely in Mueller’s crosshairs and puts to bed the oft-repeated White House talking point that the president is not under investigation by Mueller. Trump’s new-found vulnerability on Flynn doesn’t even take into account his exposure on campaign collusion with Russia, which could be what Mueller is pursuing with his indictments of Paul Manafort and former campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
At the very least, the case against Trump for obstruction of justice appears to be strong — and there could be so much more than just that. With Friday’s revelations, the potential for Trump’s son-in-law to turn against him in order to save himself seems very real.
None of us at this point can know how this story ends, but it’s increasingly hard to see how it ends well for Trump and those around him. There is a cancer on the Trump presidency, and after today it’s looking like it very well might be fatal.Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.