General Ripper Sings Like a Canary

 

In the biggest development yet in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn agreed to a plea deal with prosecutors on Friday, December 1, 2017. The legal move poses the most direct threat to the Trump presidency itself so far. Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI on or around January 24 about conversations with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. However, Flynn did not admit to colluding with Russia during the 2016 presidential election. Nevertheless, Flynn’s plea deal will strengthen Mueller’s sprawling probe into the Trump team’s possible criminal acts and Russian ties.

Of course, once Paul Manafort and Rick Gates were indicted while George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty, it was only a matter of time when Michael Flynn would flip. In fact, it’s been speculated for weeks that Flynn wanted to protect himself from a more serious criminal indictment. As with Manafort, Mueller had a solid case against the retired general. Earlier this year, Flynn offered to testify in exchange for full immunity from prosecution but Mueller refused. On November 23, The New York Times reported that Flynn’s lawyers told Trump’s lawyers they could no longer share information. Four days later, ABC News reported that Flynn’s lawyers met with Mueller’s team, a strong sign a plea deal was imminent.

Michael Flynn’s plea deal is the most significant moment in Mueller’s probe to date since he is the first person who had actually served in the Trump White House to admit breaking the law. Nor was he just any old official either since Flynn’s role as national security adviser is one of the highest-level and most powerful posts in Washington. The retired three-star general temporarily had enormous influence over Donald Trump’s early policy and personnel choices. And due to his unique ties to both the Trump campaign and Trump White House, he’s particularly well-suited to answering the Mueller probe’s central questions on whether the Trump campaign knowingly colluded with Russia and if Trump obstructed justice by trying to derail the FBI’s investigation. Flynn’s plea deal gets Mueller closer to finding that out. Now Mueller gets Flynn to talk along with an admission of guilt. Obviously, this is bad news for Michael Flynn but it could be even worse news for Donald Trump. As legal expert Asha Rangappa noted, “When you flip somebody, you’re using them to go up the chain. This suggests that Mueller’s investigation is going to go into the even-tighter inner circle of the campaign and possibly the administration.”

A retired lieutenant general who served in the Army for over 30 years, Michael Flynn is a quintessential General Ripper. Hell, take General Jack D. Ripper’s line “I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids,” and replace each mention of “Communist” with “Islamic” and you basically have Flynn. And let’s just say if it weren’t for his soft spot for Russia, he’d feel right at home among the trigger happy military brass in Dr. Strangelove. Anyway, in 2012, he was named head of the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, the Defense Intelligence Agency. During this time, he clashed with other Obama administration officials who viewed him as sloppy with facts and incompetent with management. Soon he was pushed out and resigned from his post in 2014. Technically, President Barack Obama fired him but you know how they do things in Washington. Furious, Flynn began his post government public life commenting on foreign policy and military issues in the media, becoming infamous for his extreme Islamophobic rhetoric. For example in February 2016, he tweeted, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” Such language combined with his poor DIA track record made Flynn a pariah in the mainstream foreign policy community. For the Trump campaign that championed a Muslim ban, he was a perfect fit.

In fall 2015, Michael Flynn began occasionally briefing Donald Trump on foreign affairs and his involvement in the campaign gradually deepened. By late May 2016, he was mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick for Trump. In July of that year, Flynn gave a now ironic speech at the Republican National Convention in which he riled the crowd with “Lock her up.” But while Flynn advised the Trump campaign, he operated a lobbying and consulting firm called the Flynn Intel Group which importantly, also employed his son. He was also a frequent guest on the Russian government’s English-language propaganda outlet RT, where he’d often espouse the idea that Russia and the US should team up against Islamic extremism. And it’s Flynn’s lobbying and work for the Russian government which first led into dangerous legal territory. In December 2015, Flynn traveled to Moscow for a gala celebrating RT’s 10th anniversary. He sat next to Vladimir Putin and delivered a speech about his foreign policy vision. For his services, RT paid Flynn a $45,000 speaker’s fee while Russian companies him $22,500 for speeches during the same trip. Now that in itself isn’t necessary illegal. However, Flynn reportedly lied about the source of the payments in his security clearance renewal form, claiming they came from “US companies.” Lying on this form is equivalent to lying to federal investigators which is a felony and perhaps one of the reasons why Flynn took the plead deal. In August 2016, an entity called Inovo BV hired Flynn’s consulting firm. Though it claimed to be Dutch company, Inovo BV turned out to be a shell corporation for a wealthy member from the Turkish government. Flynn seems to have continued working for Turkey until November at the earliest while Ankara paid him at least $530,000. Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, Flynn had to publicly disclose any lobbying work for the Turkish government when he started. His FARA paperwork said he worked for a Dutch company, not the Turkish government. In March 2017, Flynn filed paperwork correcting the error, admitting that Inovo really paid him to work on behalf of Turkish interests. If that’s all he did, then Michael Flynn would’ve been fine. After all, the US government typically doesn’t arrest people for filing incorrect FARA paperwork after they correct it. But if there’s more undisclosed lobbying for foreign governments like more Turkey payments or undisclosed Russian activity than he revealed in March, then he’d be in deep shit.

Still, you’d think Flynn’s legally questionable shenanigans would’ve ended in November 2016, when Donald Trump made him his national security adviser in his new administration. Though outgoing Obama officials warned the Trump transition team about appointing the guy. But if anything, it got worse. Throughout the transition, Flynn had several contacts with Kislyak. In one early December meeting at Trump Tower, he and Jared Kushner talked to the Russian ambassador about setting up a secret channel through which they can communicate. On December 29, 2016, the day Obama announced sanctions on Russia in response to the country’s hacking efforts, Flynn and Kislyak reportedly exchanged 5 phone calls. One of the discussion topics was sanctions. But Flynn reportedly told Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others on the Trump team that sanctions never came up in his calls with the Russian ambassador, spurring them to make false statements to that effect in public. This conversation between Flynn and Kislyak is part of the just-released document Mueller had sent to court.

On Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day, Michael Flynn’s former business partner allegedly bragged that he told him that Trump would quickly lift US sanctions on Russia, which would pave way for a controversial plan to build nuclear plants across the Middle East with Russian help. While this is an explosive but unverified allegation coming from a whistleblower cooperating with House Democrats, there have been reports over the last few months that Flynn continued to promote this Middle East nuclear project after the election and even as national security adviser. In the Trump presidency’s first week, Flynn was questioned by the FBI in which he denied contact with Kislyak during the transition. That same week, then acting-Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that intelligence showed Flynn had lied about his conversations with Kislyak and he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Unsurprisingly, the Trump White House did nothing about this until it leaked to the press a few weeks later, when they were spurred to fire Flynn on February 13, 2017. Then there’s an entirely separate matter of whether Flynn improperly acted on Turkey’s behalf during the transition or while in office. According to the Wall Street Journal, Mueller is investigating an “alleged plan” in which Flynn and his son would be paid as much as $15 million for forcibly removing Fethullah Gulen, a Muslim cleric living in Pennsylvania, from the United States and delivering him to Turkey. Flynn discussed this possibility with Turkish government representatives at a December meeting during the transition as incoming national security adviser.

Altogether, there’s plenty of circumstantial evidence that Michael Flynn broke the law. The plea deal where he’ll admit to lying to federal investigators confirms he did and he’s trying to get a lighter punishment. The best Flynn can do is tell Mueller everything he knows abut Trump and Russia. The next important question is whether other Trump officials aided Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential campaign. If there was collusion, Flynn most likely knows about it. This is why Mueller wanted Flynn to strike a deal. Particularly, one where Flynn agreed to a lesser sentence in exchange for giving an honest accounting of what he knows about Trump-Russia ties. Sure getting Papadopoulos to agree to cooperate with Mueller’s team was pretty awesome. But getting Flynn to flip is a much bigger prize.

And it’s possible that Flynn has more Russia ties than known since there’s already some reporting suggesting we don’t have the full Flynn and Russia story. In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that a Trump supporting GOP operative and private equity executive Peter Smith embarked on an effort to track down Hillary Clinton’s infamous 30,000 or so deleted emails during the fall of 2016 and contacted Russian hackers to ask if they had them. Smith wasn’t part of the Trump campaign. But according to sources, he told people working with him that he was coordinating with Flynn. While trying to recruit for the effort, Smith also distributed a document naming the Trump campaign as one of the 4 groups involved. Another piece of information pointing to Flynn was that US officials were aware of some intelligence that Russian hackers had at least discussed sending leaked emails to Flynn through a third party. As Shane Harris wrote for the Wall Street Journal: “Investigators have examined reports from intelligence agencies that describe Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn via an intermediary, according to U.S. officials with knowledge of the intelligence.” Smith died this year, reportedly by his own hand and Flynn hasn’t said anything about the Journal report. Nevertheless, all this is enough to raise serious questions about just what Flynn knew about this or any other attempted outreach to Russian hackers or other Russian entities. However, we don’t know yet if this led to actual collusion implicating Flynn or anyone else on the Trump team. Perhaps Smith made his effort seem important by name dropping Flynn, rather than working closely with him. In addition, Smith’s efforts to find Clinton’s deleted emails have failed since they never surfaced.

Michael Flynn’s is also central to determine whether Donald Trump obstructed justice as president, essentially by unlawfully interfering with former FBI Director James Comey’s inquiry. Since Flynn is a central character in this entire drama and fate could shape Trump’s. As Rangappa told Vox, “I think Flynn’s value to Mueller is less on the collusion part and has more to do with obstruction of justice. If Trump had any knowledge of any kind of criminal liability that Flynn may have had — and he was trying to get Comey to drop the investigation — that essentially seals Mueller’s obstruction case.” After Flynn was fired, Trump held a counterterrorism meeting with his national security officials which ended when he ordered everyone except then-Director Comey to clear the room. According to Comey’s written notes, Trump asked him to lay off the investigation into Flynn’s Russia statements. He said that Flynn “is a good guy” and urged the then-FBI director “to see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.” Comey refused so Trump eventually fired him a few months later.

Flynn’s testimony could help answer if Trump wanted to protect him out of fear on what he might know. It’s not enough to show that Trump didn’t like where the Russia investigation was going. A prosecutor or member of Congress pushing for impeachment would need to show that Trump actually tried to cover up some kind of wrongdoing on his part to establish an obstruction case. As federal prosecutor Alex Whiting explained the specifics of Trump’s relationship with Flynn matter a great deal, noting: “Did [Trump] know that Flynn’s story was an important piece in the larger picture, one that he did not want revealed? Or did he know that the FBI’s pressure on Flynn could force him to give up other incriminating evidence? Far from simply acting to shield a former subordinate and ally, was Trump actually just trying to protect himself, and those close to him? If the answer to any of these questions is yes, then Trump’s actions will have a very different feel to them, and his potential defenses much harder, if not impossible, to swallow.” Flynn may know the answer to Whiting’s questions which Mueller will likely hear soon.

Still, former US attorney Preet Bharara isn’t convinced that Michael Flynn received “a sweetheart deal of a lifetime” in exchange for hugely important cooperation. On the latest podcast episode, the former New York prosecutor disputed that the relatively light charge against the former 3-star general clearly showed he must’ve agreed to provide especially valuable information to Mueller’s investigation. Bharara refers to his own experience supervising similar high-profile cases.  He claimed, “When we had evidence against somebody and wanted them to flip, we made them plead guilty to every bad act that they had ever done. Especially if we were later gonna be alleging other people had engaged in that activity as well.” Such actions, the former prosecutor argues makes a witness like Flynn more credible in court if he has to testify against someone else. “Otherwise, the only thing the jury will know for a fact about your witness is that he is an admitted, convicted liar,” he said. What he suspects is that Mueller doesn’t’ have anything else on Flynn that might stand in court. But he also suggests that Mueller is “holding back on other charges to which Michael Flynn will plead guilty if and when they form the basis of charging some other folks.” In other words, certain potential charges against Flynn could implicate others in Trump’s team as well and that Mueller’s team just isn’t ready to make those charges yet (and may never be). Yet, this case could be different than Bharara’s own past prosecutions. For one, Mueller’s potential endgame might be impeachment referral rather than a high-profile court trial. In addition, Mueller could be concerned about Trump’s pardon power, possibly holding off some potential charges against Flynn so he could bring them later, in case of a pardon. And seeing how quickly Trump pardoned infamous former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Mueller might’ve taken a cue.

On Saturday December 2, 2017, Donald Trump tweeted that he fired his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn because he lied to the vice president and the FBI. If that’s the case, Trump knew that Flynn lied to the FBI when he asked then FBI Director James Comey to drop his inquiry into Flynn and then fired him when he failed to do so. This could play into an obstruction of justice case against him. Looking into Trump’s history which shows unparalleled disrespect for the rule of law, committing obstruction of justice shouldn’t come as a surprise. Donald Trump’s corruption is mindboggling beyond any measure that anyone could imagine. He has already abused his power as president in order to enrich himself as well as constantly lies about everything whenever he opens his mouth. But should Mueller’s team find compelling evidence if the Trump team engaged in a criminal conspiracy to help hack Hillary Clinton’s email (since stealing documents is illegal), violated campaign finance laws through soliciting foreign help like from the Russian government, or committing crimes against the investigation itself like witness intimidation, perjury, obstruction of justice, and the like, Mueller can convene a federal jury and seek a criminal indictment against the person. If the grand jury signs off, that person is then arrested and charged. Eventually Trump can be forced to make a terrible choice. He could risk a close associate or family member going to jail or possibly making a deal with federal prosecutors in return for testimony that could incriminate others. Or he could use his pardon power to shield his cronies from federal charges. Should he go the second route, expect a massive political conflict with Congress because of the obvious impropriety of President Pussygrabber pardoning family members or close associates for crimes committed to help him win the presidency in the first place.

Then there’s the question of what happens if Mueller finds evidence of criminal behavior by Donald Trump himself. Granted that Trump is a narcissistic sociopath with a history of abusing his power for his own enrichment, disrespecting the rule of law, and getting away with egregious corruption practices, this is extremely likely. As special prosecutor, Mueller has the legal authority to file charges against any Trump associates or family members. But there’s another legal debate as to whether it’s constitutional for prosecutors to indict a president on criminal charges. Because no state or federal attorney has ever indicted a president on serious criminal charges and we have no Supreme Court precedent to answer that question. Mueller would likely sidestep that whole minefield and simply make a report to the House of Representatives documenting evidence of Trump’s “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard of impeachment. Should Mueller’s report contain damning evidence, it would put a lot of pressure on the House to begin impeachment proceedings. In short, Mueller could take the first step toward ending Trump’s presidency. So Trump really needs to be afraid. Especially since Mueller is currently looking into his business practices and finances which contain plenty of shady stuff less wealthy people have been arrested for.

 

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