Almost daily, reality deals another blow to the alternative narrative that President Donald Trump has constructed around his scandal-plagued presidency, campaign and business legacy.
On Tuesday, in a courtroom cliffhanger, Michael Flynn effectively eviscerated the President’s claims that the former national security adviser was trapped into lies and flipping on his boss under unfair FBI intimidation.
In another stain on the reputation of the President, the Trump Foundation agreed to disband following a suit that alleged that Trump and his elder children used it to enrich themselves.
And in another possible blow to Trump, a federal appeals court compelled an unnamed company owned by a foreign country to comply with a subpoena suspected to be related to the Russia investigation, four days after a mystery hearing.
Such events would provoke immense uproar in any other presidency and might rank as the most dramatic scandals of a commander in chief’s term.
For Trump, they were just the latest blows and legal reverses in days of deeply damaging revelations about the President, after special counsel Robert Mueller broke his midterm campaign hiatus.
Trump has seen his claims that he had no business interests in Russia debunked by disclosures about his proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow. CNN obtained a letter of intent, signed by Trump, to move forward with negotiations to build a Trump Tower in Russia just days after his attorney Rudy Giuliani claimed the document was never signed. Mueller’s filings make it clear, despite Trump’s claims, there were contacts with Russians. And he has been indirectly implicated in a campaign finance crime involving hush payments to women he lied about.
In many ways, Tuesday’s developments simply thickened the cloud of suspicion and legal peril that has engulfed all aspects of Trump’s personal, political and business life.
And they indicate that while Trump’s rhetorical assaults on the FBI and Mueller may fly on conspiratorial conservative media and with his core political support, they are prone to dissolve in the reality-based situation of a courtroom.
’I am not hiding my disgust’
In Tuesday’s hearing, Judge Emmet Sullivan repeatedly stressed the gravity of Flynn’s crimes. He originally and mistakenly said that Flynn had worked as an unregistered agent for the Turkish government during his brief tenure at the White House, saying such behavior was arguably tantamount to selling his country out.
He later corrected himself to reflect the fact that Flynn’s undisclosed lobbying for Turkey ended before he joined the White House in January 2017. But Flynn was on Turkey’s payroll while he advised Trump during the campaign. The contract ended while Flynn was a senior member on Trump’s transition team.
There was no mistaking the judge’s attitude towards the former general’s conduct.
“I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain for your criminal offense,” Sullivan said.
Solomon Wisenberg, a former deputy counsel in the Clinton-era Whitewater affair, told CNN that Sullivan decided not to ignore the larger political reality around the case framed by the President’s attacks on the administration of justice.
“The idea that his comments have not been affected by the President of the United States and his campaign of vilification is far fetched,” Wisenberg said.
“He is affected by that and I think it is proper for him to take that into consideration in terms of what he publicly says,” he said.
Tuesday’s sentencing proceedings for Flynn were expected to be a routine affair since Mueller had requested he serve no jail time for lying to the FBI, given his “substantial” cooperation with the Russia probe.
Heading into the hearing, Trump and his supporters were touting a story that Flynn was a victim and not a criminal, maintaining that he was railroaded by the FBI when questioned about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
Before the court sat, Trump tweeted good luck to Flynn and claimed he had been under “tremendous pressure” from federal authorities.
But Sullivan appeared to take exception to such arguments, since he required Flynn to state clearly in court that he was standing by his guilty plea. His move followed a filing by Flynn’s lawyers last week in which they complained that their client had been pressed by then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe not to have a lawyer present during his FBI interview.
Sullivan asked Flynn’s attorney Robert Kelner if his client was “entrapped” by the FBI and the attorney replied: “No, your honor.”
“Are you continuing to accept responsibility for his false statements?” Sullivan asked, before Flynn broke in with the words: “I am, your honor.”
“I would like to proceed, your honor,” Flynn said in a later exchange.
“Because you’re guilty of this offense?” Sullivan asked.
“Yes, your honor,” Flynn replied.
Flynn, a career US government servant and military officer who rose to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, also told the court that he knew that lying to the FBI was a crime when he did it.
Tuesday’s hearing came a day after the release of a Mueller memo detailing Flynn’s interview with FBI agents in which the then-national security adviser lied about his contact during the presidential transition in 2016 with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak.
The official court document also shows no evidence that there was any attempt to entrap Flynn or sense that his rights were being violated.
The message did not reach the White House, which stuck to outdated talking points contradicted by the facts. In a rare press briefing, Trump spokeswoman Sarah Sanders kept faith with her boss’ alternative universe.
She stood by a previous statement that the FBI had “ambushed” Flynn and broken protocol by not conducting the interview in the presence of a lawyer and used the White House podium to launch a new attack on the law enforcement agencies of which the President is the titular head.
“We don’t have any reason to walk that back,” she said, while distancing the President from any lies told by Flynn.
At the end of Tuesday’s hearing, Flynn and his lawyers agreed to a delay in his sentencing until March, after apparently concluding that the judge, who was deeply perturbed by Flynn’s crimes, intended to send him to jail.
That grace period will allow Flynn even more time to add to his 19 meetings with Mueller’s team – a further flashing danger sign for Trump emerging out of Tuesday’s events.
There is, so far, no public evidence that Trump either ordered Flynn to lie or directed the contents of his conversations, on issues including Russian sanctions and a vote on Israeli settlements at the UN, with Kislyak.
If the President ends up being accused of cooperating with Russia in election meddling or obstructing justice, after asking FBI chief James Comey to go easy on Flynn, and then firing Comey, he will have a chance to mount a formal defense.
But there is still no answer as to why Flynn, who spent months at Trump’s side, chose to lie to the FBI about his chats with the ambassador of a state that he knew had been accused by US intelligence of meddling in the election.
That riddle may have to await Mueller’s final report.
Charity as check book
As is often the case for Trump, bad news came on several fronts Tuesday.
His personal charitable foundation agreed to dissolve in the face of claims that the President and his three eldest children – Don Jr., Ivanka and Eric – violated campaign finance laws and abused its tax-exempt status.
Instead of operating a genuine charity, the lawsuit alleged, the family allowed it to be used “as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests.”
Under the terms of the lawsuit that is to continue, New York state is seeking $2.8 million in restitution, plus penalties, and a ban on Trump and his children serving on the board of any other New York nonprofit.
“It is extraordinary,” Anne Milgram, a former New Jersey attorney general, told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
“What the AG is saying is that they have failed in the fiduciary duties to the non profit organization in such an enormous way that they are not qualified to sit on the board of any non profit or charity in the state of New York.”
CNN’s Katelyn Potantz and Marshall Cohen contributed to this story