(CNN)Special Counsel Robert Mueller's plea deal Friday with President Donald Trump's former national security adviser signaled that Mueller is closing in on senior officials of the 2016 Trump campaign, heightening the conflict between the two leading players in America's post-election Russia drama.
Flynn plea raises questions on how Trump could react
Trump tried to staunch the Russia investigation on multiple fronts.
An overriding question is whether the new revelations increase the chances that Trump tries to get rid of Mueller, as he did last May when he sacked FBI Director James Comey, who first led the investigation into possible Trump campaign ties to Russian interference in the election.
Or would the President attempt to get ahead of Mueller by pardoning associates, including former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who on Friday pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia's ambassador and disclosed he is cooperating with Mueller.
Not only is Flynn the first person inside the Trump administration to be charged by Mueller, he also is the one individual who Trump apparently was trying to shield. Former FBI director Comey testified on Capitol Hill in June that Trump had pulled him aside and said, " '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.' "
Friday's developments pointed up Mueller's deliberate, detailed approach, and the threat he may pose to people close to Trump, including his son Donald Jr. and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, both of whom have been interviewed by federal investigators.
Mueller's approach contrasts with a shoot-from-the-hip president who has derided the Russia investigation as a "witch hunt."
But now, one of Trump's closest associates is with Mueller.
The cooperation of Flynn, a senior campaign official and former top adviser on national security, could lead to inside information critical to Mueller's probe.
While the President did not personally respond Friday, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said in a statement, "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."
The breakthrough announcement came just a little over a month after the October 30 Mueller indictment against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and former campaign official Rick Gates and a plea deal with George Papadopoulos. Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty to the charges against them.
According to new court documents, Flynn was in contact with senior Trump transition team officials at Mar-a-Lago about conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak regarding US sanctions on Russia. Flynn separately communicated with Kislyak after being asked by a senior Trump transition official to find out how foreign governments stood on a UN Security Council resolution about Israel and to influence those governments to delay the vote or defeat the resolution. Flynn lied to the FBI in a January 24 interview about these interactions, he has admitted.
CNN reported that a source familiar with the investigation said Kushner is the "very senior" transition official mentioned in the documents. Kushner met with Mueller's investigators last month to discuss Flynn, CNN has reported. An attorney for Kushner did not comment. Separately, KT McFarland, a senior transition official at Mar-a-Lago, was described as discussing with Flynn what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about US sanctions, according to sources familiar with the matter. An attorney for McFarland declined comment.
Flynn resigned from his national security position after it became known that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about his conversations with Kislyak.
As in the October 30 filings against Manafort and others, Mueller's lawyers appeared to be offering an implicit warning to potential additional defendants about the paths they were pursuing. The lawyers appear ready to seize upon any lies told in earlier months of the investigation and poised to leverage insiders.
The New York Times reported on Thursday that Trump had pressed top Senate Republicans this summer, including Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr, to end the committee's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
White House aides say Trump has used no improper influence to stop the investigations. Still, Trump has made clear that the probe preoccupies him and he wants it gone. After he fired Comey, he told NBC News, "... I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.' "
There have been mixed reports from the White House about how seriously Trump would consider pardons. In July, he tweeted, "While all agree the U. S. President has the complete power to pardon, why think of that when only crime so far is LEAKS against us. FAKE NEWS."