Flynn plea brings Mueller closer to the White House

The guilty plea from former national security adviser Michael Flynn has brought special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation onto the front lawn of the White House.

Flynn, who on Friday pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about the nature of a series of calls with the Russian ambassador, is the first person successfully prosecuted by Mueller who held a formal position in the Trump administration.

And multiple outlets on Friday reported that current senior White House adviser Jared Kushner was the one who directed at least some of Flynn’s calls to the ambassador — in a potential violation of a law prohibiting private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.

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Flynn is now cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation, which is examining potential ties between the campaign and Moscow during the 2016 presidential race, as part of his plea deal. 

A White House lawyer who is handling matters related to the various Russia investigations said Friday that the plea deal implicated no one other than Flynn, and he said the false statements Flynn made to the FBI “mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year.”

But government prosecutors on Friday raised new questions about who in Trump’s orbit knew Flynn was misrepresenting the content of the calls — and what kind of testimony the former intelligence official might be providing to investigators.

Mueller is authorized to investigate any other matters that may arise during the course of his investigation.

Under the plea agreement he negotiated with Mueller, Flynn will face at most six months in prison and a $9,500 fine — a light sentence compared with the various crimes of which he is accused, legal analysts say.

“The story isn’t that Michael Flynn is pleading guilty,” tweeted national security lawyer Steve Vladeck. “It’s what he’s giving Mueller in exchange for such a minor charge (and modest potential sentence).”

“We may not know the answer to that for some time, but I have to think it’s substantial…”

Mueller’s probe has swept up a number of current White House officials, including Kushner. Investigators reportedly interviewed the president’s son-in-law earlier this month.

Prosecutors told U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras on Friday that Flynn spoke with a “senior official” in President’s Trump's transition team at the Mar-a-Lago resort to discuss what he should communicate to the Russian ambassador during a series of December 2016 calls with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak.

It is not yet known who that official was — or whether he or she currently works in the White House. 

Flynn and the senior official discussed both the recently implemented U.S. sanctions on Russia, as well as the fact that they did not want Russia to escalate friction between the two nations, prosecutors said.

After the discussion, Flynn telephoned Kislyak. He then called the senior transition official and reported the sanctions discussion, prosecutors said.

Shortly after that phone call, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would not retaliate against Obama's sanctions at that time. Kislyak later followed up with Flynn and affirmed that Russia would moderate its response to the sanctions. Flynn communicated that exchange to other transition officials.

Prosecutors also say that a "very senior member" of the president's transition team "directed" Flynn to contact officials from foreign governments — including Russia — to persuade them to vote against a United Nations Security Council resolution. 

Multiple outlets have identified the official as Kushner, who currently holds a broad foreign policy portfolio that includes the administration’s Middle East strategy. At the time, he was reportedly the lead within the transition team on the resolution in question, which was related to Israel.

Some analysts have suggested that the Kislyak calls are a violation of the Logan Act, an obscure 1799 law prohibiting private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.

But no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under that law and it is widely considered to be a so-called dead letter — a law still on the books but defunct in practice.

The court filings have raised questions about how involved the president himself was in transition team discussions related to the Kislyak calls, however.

According to pool reports, the president was at Mar-a-Lago at the time the sanctions were discussed — as were current White House officials Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. Former chief of staff Reince Priebus and former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland were also there.

The day that Putin announced he would not retaliate for the sanctions — the day after Flynn urged Kislyak to take that course — Trump tweeted, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!”

Barely two weeks later, Pence publicly denied that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak.

The calls related to the U.N. Security Council vote took place “on or about December 22,” but the charge sheet gives few other clues. A spokesperson for the special counsel’s office declined to comment on the identity of the official who directed Flynn.

It remains an open question whether Trump will continue to support his embattled former adviser — perhaps in a form of a pardon — given Flynn’s cooperation with the special counsel.

“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 in late March. 

-Updated Dec. 2 at 11:22 a.m.