WASHINGTON — Somehow, The Washington Post had uncovered Michael Flynn’s secret. Somehow, it had learned that he had spoken with Russia’s ambassador the same day the Obama administration announced hefty sanctions on the country.
Now the question was raised: Had the incoming national security adviser undermined the sanctions?
Flynn was in trouble.
“What the hell is this all about?” Trump fumed to his chief of staff, Reince Priebus. Priebus called Flynn. The boss is angry, he told Flynn. “Kill the story,” he said.
Flynn, the retired U.S. Army lieutenant general who grew close to Trump on the campaign trail, knew it was true. Just weeks before, he had indeed discussed the sanctions and persuaded the Kremlin not to escalate the situation. But feeling the pressure of Trump’s anger after Priebus’ call, Flynn turned to his deputy.
Call the Post, Flynn said. Tell them there were no sanctions discussions. Even though she knew better, the aide, K.T. McFarland, did as she was told.
It was the first lie about Flynn’s Russia contacts. It wouldn’t be the last.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Another in a series of stories focusing on events detailed in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, drawing from the document’s trove.
Over the next few days, Flynn repeated the lie to Priebus and others in the White House. No sanctions discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, he told Mike Pence, the vice-president-elect. He said the same to press secretary Sean Spicer. And they parroted that to the public.
“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence said during a Jan. 15 appearance on CBS “Face the Nation.
The denials set off alarm bells at the Justice Department.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama holdover, and other senior officials knew the comments weren’t true. U.S. intelligence agencies, which routinely monitor the communications of foreign diplomats, had learned of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak when analyzing the Kremlin’s response to the sanctions. The FBI had also opened an investigation into Flynn’s relationship with Russia.
Yates worried that Flynn’s lie could put him and other U.S. officials in a compromising position because the Russians could prove the American public had been misled. There was also an ongoing counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, of which Flynn’s calls were now a part of the mounting evidence.
The Justice Department’s concerns only increased when, after Trump’s inauguration and Flynn’s appointment as the nation’s top national security aide, Spicer gave his first press briefing. He had spoken with Flynn the night before, he told reporters.
The Kislyak calls weren’t about sanctions, he said. Next question.
Two FBI agents walked into the White House the next day. It was Jan. 24, 2017, and they were there to talk to Flynn.
One of them was Peter Strzok, a senior counterintelligence official who would later face scrutiny for his anti-Trump comments. Flynn agreed to talk with them, and when asked, denied that he told Kislyak to back off from escalating situation in response to the sanctions.
He also lied about a follow-up phone call and another matter: On Dec. 21, 2016, when Egypt pushed a resolution at the United States critical of Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner turned to Flynn to push for the Kremlin to oppose the move. Flynn had unsuccessfully pressured Kislyak on the issue. But he told the agents otherwise.
News of the false statements to the FBI– a crime under federal law– quickly made it to Yates, who on Jan. 26, called White House counsel Don McGahn. She needed to discuss a sensitive matter.
In a meeting with McGahn and another White House lawyer later that day, Yates told him that Pence’s comments about Flynn weren’t true. Also, Flynn’s FBI interview hadn’t gone well.
McGahn, not entirely swayed by Yates, asked the National Security Council’s legal adviser, John Eisenberg, to look into the matter. He also went to Trump.
The president told him to work with Priebus and chief strategist Steve Bannon to look into it further. He added: Don’t discuss this with anyone else.
“Not again, this guy, this stuff,” Trump told Priebus, referring to Flynn.
Over the next week and a half, Eisenberg and McGahn gathered more information, and Flynn had a one-on-one with Trump in the Oval Office. What did you talk about with Kislyak? Trump asked. Flynn acknowledged he might have discussed sanctions.
Days later, the front page of The Washington Post would say the same thing.
The story shook Pence, who had been in the dark. A review of Justice Department documents sealed it. Flynn couldn’t have just forgotten. He had lied. McGahn and Priebus told Trump he had to fire Flynn.
That weekend, Flynn flew to Mar-A-Lago with the president. On the plane back to Washington on Feb. 12, Trump asked him whether he lied to Pence. Flynn said he may have forgotten some things but denied lying. “OK. That’s fine,” Trump responded. “I got it.”
The next day, Flynn was out.
Priebus delivered the news. In the Oval Office, Trump embraced Flynn and shook his hand. “We’ll give you a good recommendation. You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you,” he said.
Flynn had spent just 25 days as national security adviser.
Trump had lunch with former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie the next day, which was Valentine’s Day. “Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over,” Trump told him. Christie burst out laughing. No way, he said.
“What do you mean?” Trump responded. “Flynn met with the Russians. That was the problem. I fired Flynn. It’s over.”
Flynn is going to be like “gum on the bottom of your shoe,” Christie said.
In the Oval Office later that day, Flynn was still on Trump’s mind. The president was being briefed by his top national security team. That included FBI Director James Comey, who Trump was intent on making part of “his team.”
As the meeting wrapped up, Trump cleared the room and asked Comey to remain behind. “I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” Trump said, according to Comey. There was nothing wrong with Flynn’s calls with the Kislyak, he said, but he had to fire Flynn for lying to Pence.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Comey awkwardly sidestepped the issue. But over the next few weeks, Flynn remained on Trump’s mind.
Trump praised him publicly. Privately, he turned to McFarland, who had covered for Flynn before. On Feb. 22, 2017, McFarland, now the deputy national security adviser, was asked to resign. But Priebus and Bannon, who conveyed the message, suggested it came with a soft landing. The president could make her ambassador to Singapore.
The ask came a day later.
As reporters questioned whether he directed Flynn’s Russia contacts, Trump told Priebus to have McFarland draft an internal email saying that the president didn’t order Flynn to discuss sanctions with Kislyak.
Priebus went to McFarland, who balked. How could she write such an email? She didn’t know if it was true, she told him. She went to Eisenberg, who told her it was a bad idea. “It would also be a bad idea for the President because it looked as if my ambassadorial appointment was in some way a quid pro quo,” she wrote in a contemporaneous memo.
Priebus backed off. Forget I even mentioned it, he said.
But Trump wasn’t done. Call Flynn to show I still care, he told Priebus. Trump doesn’t want Flynn saying “bad things” about him, Priebus later recalled thinking.
In late March, news outlets reported that Flynn had offered to speak with the FBI and Congress in exchange for immunity. “Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!” Trump tweeted.
But privately, Trump asked McFarland to convey a different message. Tell him Trump felt bad for him, he said.
And he should stay strong.
On Dec. 1, 2017 Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to “wilfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” to the FBI concerning conversations with Russia’s ambassador. He co-operated extensively with Mueller’s probe and awaits sentencing.
EDITOR’S NOTE – Another in a series of stories focusing on events detailed in the report of special counsel Robert Mueller, drawing from the document’s trove.