Michael Flynn’s attorneys made public on Wednesday a handwritten note from Bill Priestap, the then-counterintelligence director at the FBI, that mused how agents should approach a critical interview with President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser in the White House in January 2017 and gave Flynn’s team new reason to cry foul.
“What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” Priestap wrote. “If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ & have them decide. Or, if he initially lies, then we present him [redacted] & he admits it, document for DOJ, & let them decide how to address it.”
Within hours of its release, the note sent the President and his supporters into a furor on Twitter, while criminal defense lawyers and FBI alumni said they were making too much of the agency’s preparation for the Flynn interview, in which the national security adviser lied to the FBI, a crime he later admitted to in court multiple times.
It’s typical for the FBI to plot out how they may conduct an interview in advance, and the documents released Wednesday show the FBI discussing whether they should warn Flynn in advance that lying could be prosecuted and whether to confront him if he lied.
In short, the snapshot of blunt wording from Priestap allowed Trump and Flynn’s lawyers to revive their claims that the FBI set Flynn up. Some of Flynn’s supporters called it a smoking gun. But to others familiar with the case and law enforcement, it was a Rorschach test.
Lawyers for Flynn, who pleaded guilty late in 2017 to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russia’s ambassador, said they believe the document, along with others, supports their accusations of investigative misconduct.
Specifically, they took issue with Priestap’s wording to “get him” to lie or be fired, and that FBI discussed before they interviewed Flynn referring him for prosecution by the Justice Department.
Trump sent out more than a dozen tweets about Flynn, saying he was wronged and attacking FBI leadership, including former Director James Comey.
“What happened to General Michael Flynn, a war hero, should never be allowed to happen to a citizen of the United States again!” Trump tweeted Thursday morning.
Trump said later Thursday he would “certainly consider” bringing Flynn back to the administration. When asked about a possible pardon, the President said, “It looks like to me that Michael Flynn would be exonerated based on everything that I see. I’m not the judge, but I have a different type of power.”
Vice President Mike Pence also said on Thursday he was “deeply troubled” by the FBI records and called it “investigative abuse.”
But previously, the President has said he had to fire Flynn because he had also lied to Pence, prompting Pence to share the lie in a TV interview. Pence on Thursday said he now believes Flynn “was not attempting to misrepresent facts.”
After the election in late 2016, Flynn spoke to then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the phone, requesting for Russia not to react harshly to US sanctions and to oppose the Obama administration in an upcoming United Nations vote on Israel. He had discussed the calls with Trump transition officials. When FBI agents asked him about the calls in the West Wing in January 2017, Flynn falsely said he had not made the requests of Russia.
Flynn’s firing in 2017, days after the FBI interview, came not just because of his lies to the agents. He also lied about his contacts with Kislyak to senior administration officials, including Pence, opening up administration officials to being potentially compromised by Russia.
In his guilty plea, he also admitted to not telling the Justice Department, which regulates foreign agents in the US, about lobbying for Turkey in 2016.
At the time of his interview, the FBI had already collected evidence that what Flynn told Kislyak potentially violated a law that bars unauthorized Americans from negotiating with foreign governments. Priestap’s note nods to this.
But Flynn had already covered up his discussion with the Russian to his colleagues, making it possible he would deny the facts of the conversation again. Lying to the FBI is also a crime – and the one to which Flynn eventually pleaded guilty before two federal judges.
Greg Brower, a former US attorney and the FBI’s chief congressional liaison until 2018, said that without the context around the notes, it’s hard to assign any deeper meaning to them.
“To the extent this is being advertised as evidence of something nefarious, I certainly don’t see it in that way,” Brower said. “I don’t know what this means and I don’t know that it’s important at all.”
Priestap also noted on the same piece of paper, “If we’re seen as playing games, WH (White House) will be furious. Protect our institution by not playing games.”
CNN has sought comment from a lawyer for Priestap. He is not identified in the documents, but the handwritten note bears the initials “EP” and two sources confirmed the note was his.
The documents turned over to Flynn’s lawyers are the first public results of a reexamination requested by Attorney General William Barr, and they represent a more complicated position for the department than what it’s previously said in court.
They also provide an unusual assist to the Flynn defense team that could serve to undermine the department’s own case, one of the major accomplishments of former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
While Flynn’s legal team has alleged the Justice Department and FBI wrongfully targeted Flynn, the Justice Department in court has defended the handling of the case.
But Barr also ordered St. Louis US Attorney Jeffrey Jensen to review Flynn’s case and plea deal in recent months.
Jensen gave the Priestap note and other documents about FBI interactions to Flynn’s team within the past week.
Flynn’s attorneys, who are trying to unravel his guilty plea, submitted the January 2017 Priestap note to a judge along with three emails from former FBI officials Peter Strzok and Lisa Page that discuss whether and how to warn Flynn about lying during the interview.
On Thursday, Flynn’s team made public in court more records they received this week from Jensen – text messages between Strzok and Page and an FBI memo about closing the Flynn investigation in early January, before his sanctions discussion with Kislyak was widely known.
The judge, Emmet Sullivan of the US District Court in DC, then shut down the daily drip of documents from Flynn’s team, saying they must wait until Jensen finishes his review and then can put more evidence into the court record if needed.
It’s not clear why Jensen has been turning over the records to Flynn’s team at this time, or even if the documents are newly discovered after other completed Justice Department reviews of the early Russia investigation.
Flynn was serving as Trump’s national security adviser at the time and previously revealed records have shown agents discussed what to do if Flynn lied to them about his interactions during the Trump campaign with the Russian ambassador. He pleaded guilty in late 2017 to lying to the federal agents. He has not yet been sentenced.
Flynn’s lies about his conversations with Kislyak prompted his exit from the White House less than a month later. The situation eventually spiraled into the President firing Comey after he pressured Comey to go easy on Flynn, which became a crucial part of the Mueller investigation.
With his plea deal, Flynn became a major cooperator with Mueller, telling investigators about key moments before Trump became President and about potential attempts by Trump and those around him to obstruct the Russia investigation.
UPDATE: This story and headline have been updated with reaction and additional background on the developments.
Jason Hoffman, Kristen Holmes, Marshall Cohen contributed to this story.