President Donald Trump went on a Twitter rampage Thursday about his former adviser Michael Flynn, flooding the zone with conspiracy theories and paper-thin allegations that crooked FBI investigators entrapped Flynn as part of a “deep state” plot.
Many of these claims have already been cast aside by independent fact-checkers, rebutted by Justice Department lawyers and dismissed out of hand by a federal judge. But seizing on a batch of documents unsealed Wednesday, Trump and his allies are claiming there are new and explosive reasons to doubt Flynn’s prosecution, raising the chances that a pardon is in the works.
The files – FBI emails and memos – shed new light on how FBI officials carefully prepared to interview Flynn in January 2017. Flynn supporters point to one note where an FBI official asks, “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” Other notes show how the FBI planned to refresh Flynn’s memory if he lied to them.
Despite Trump’s fanfare, the new information is not a clear-cut breakthrough for Flynn, who is trying to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea, when he admitted lying to the FBI about his contacts with a Russian official. A federal judge still needs to rule on whether to allow Flynn to withdraw his plea – a decision likely weeks or months away, which could become moot if Flynn is pardoned.
The latest round of table-banging from Trump and allied media outlets ignores basic facts about Flynn’s case. Not only is Trump trying to rewrite history on Flynn, he also continues to use his platform (effectively the largest megaphone in the world) to delegitimize the damning findings about his own behavior by former special counsel Robert Mueller.
Flynn’s crime and cover-up regarding Russia
Flynn lied to the FBI about his Russian contacts. He became Trump’s first national security adviser in January 2017 and was interviewed shortly thereafter by FBI agents about his calls with the Russian ambassador. According to court filings, Flynn told at least four lies during the interview, about his conversations with the Russian about sanctions and a United Nations vote.
Flynn said under oath that he wasn’t set-up. Flynn got a heads-up that FBI agents wanted to interview him about Russia. Prosecutors said the agents gave him “multiple opportunities” to correct his lies. They used questioning tactics that are common in criminal probes. Flynn testified in 2018 that he knew it was a crime when he lied to the FBI agents, that he didn’t think his rights were violated and that he didn’t want to challenge the circumstances of his interview.
Flynn lied to the Trump White House about Russia. The FBI wanted to interview Flynn after seeing public denials from senior White House officials that Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. According to the Mueller report, Flynn lied privately to Vice President Mike Pence, then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and then-spokesman Sean Spicer, who publicly repeated those denials in a series of press interviews before Trump took office.
Flynn told two judges under oath that he was guilty. When Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017, and during his initial sentencing hearing in 2018, Flynn said under oath that he was guilty of lying to the FBI. He made this sworn statement in front of two separate judges who handled different parts of his criminal case. He pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the FBI.
Additional wrongdoing beyond Russia
Flynn was a pro-Turkey lobbyist while advising Trump. Flynn’s plea revealed he was an unregistered lobbyist for Turkish interests while advising candidate Trump on foreign policy in 2016. Flynn’s company was paid $500,000 by a Dutch company to push pro-Turkey interests in the US, and he publicly flip-flopped after initially backing the June 2016 coup attempt in Ankara.
Flynn lied to the Justice Department about his Turkey lobbying. Flynn belatedly registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for Turkey after the contract ended. But he later admitted making three false statements in that paperwork. (Flynn acknowledged these additional crimes in his guilty plea, but he has since disavowed this admission and is now trying to withdraw the plea.)
Flynn later changed his story on Turkey. Flynn was also slated to testify against his former business partner, Bijan Kian, who was charged with illegal lobbying for Turkey. According to court filings, Flynn told a grand jury that their lobbying “was always on behalf” of the Turkish government. But Flynn changed his story before the trial, and prosecutors didn’t call him as a witness. The jury convicted Kian, but the judge threw out their verdict due to lack of evidence.
‘Substantial’ cooperation with Mueller
Flynn got a strong plea deal, avoiding other charges. Despite seven documented lies to investigators, Flynn reached an agreement with Mueller in December 2017 and pleaded guilty to one count of lying. He avoided any lobbying-related charges, even though his business partner was later indicted. Flynn and his wife said in sworn affidavits that the deal protected their son, who was involved in the company. And according to an FBI note from 2017 released this week, investigators mulled whether Flynn violated the Logan Act with his Russian backchanneling.
Flynn provided Mueller with evidence against Trump. After inking that cooperation deal, Flynn gave Mueller evidence about obstruction of justice by Trump, including a voicemail from Trump lawyer John Dowd shortly before Flynn flipped. Flynn also told investigators about how the Trump campaign discussed reaching out to WikiLeaks and find Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Embracing conspiracy theories
Flynn’s lawyers have peddled in conspiracy theories. Flynn switched up his legal team last year. He fired his white-collar attorneys and hired a team with more conservative ties, led by Sidney Powell, a right-wing firebrand who has a history of embracing conspiracy theories about the Justice Department. She has included these conspiracies in her court filings in Flynn’s case.
A judge ruled there was no Justice Department plot against Flynn. A federal judge soundly rejected many of the allegations put forward by Powell, who argued that corrupt FBI officials conspired to entrap Flynn because they hated Trump. The judge previously said “the record proves” that Flynn wasn’t ambushed, and rejected his attempts to obtain more documents. Flynn’s lawyers are using the newly unsealed documents as part of their ongoing attempt to withdraw the plea.
Justice Department lawyers defended the Flynn investigation in court. Flynn pressed for more documents last year to prove his misconduct allegations against the FBI. But Justice Department lawyers rebutted his claims in court and called it “a fishing expedition in hopes of advancing conspiracy theories.” (Later, Attorney General William Barr launched his own review of the files Flynn was seeking, and it was this review that surfaced the new documents that were unsealed this week.)