Donald Trump's former national security adviser has admitted to lying about secret talks with the Russian government and agreed to co-operate with Robert Mueller's investigation, putting the President in a precarious position as the election-hacking probe reaches straight into the White House.
Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday morning to a single count of making false statements to the FBI, after lying to the bureau in an interview last Jan. 24 about his discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
On the orders of an unnamed "senior official" with Mr. Trump's transition team, Mr. Flynn engaged in clandestine discussions in December, 2016, to persuade Russia not to retaliate against new sanctions imposed on Moscow by then-president Barack Obama, court documents filed in Mr. Flynn's case said. Mr. Flynn also unsuccessfully lobbied Mr. Kislyak, at the direction of a "very senior member" of the transition team, to have Russia thwart a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel's construction of settlements in the Palestinian territories.
The revelations represent a mounting threat to Mr. Trump's 10-month-old presidency. Mr. Flynn is the fourth figure from the campaign to be prosecuted, the first former administration official and the first to be charged related to talks directly with the Russian government. Mr. Mueller is investigating allegations Mr. Trump's circle colluded with the Kremlin over Russia's attempts to sway the 2016 election in Mr. Trump's favour.
Trump said on Saturday there was "absolutely no collusion" between his campaign and Russia, his first comment on a guilty plea by his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
"What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion," Trump told reporters as he departed the White House for fund-raising events in New York. "There's been absolutely no collusion, so we're very happy."
ABC News reported that Mr. Flynn had agreed to testify that Mr. Trump himself ordered Mr. Flynn to speak with the Russians; Bloomberg, meanwhile, named Mr. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner as the person that told Mr. Flynn to lobby against the UN resolution. If true, the accusations could connect the back-channel talks with Russia right to the Oval Office.
In his first comments since the guilty plea, Mr. Trump said Saturday there was "absolutely no collusion," despite the back-channel discussions. "What's been shown is no collusion, no collusion," he said as he left the White House for fundraisers in New York. "There's been absolutely no collusion, so we're very happy."
In a subsequent tweet, Mr. Trump said Mr. Flynn's calls were not a problem, only the fact he lied about them: "It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"
In statement, Mr. Flynn insisted he had never committed treason. "But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right," he said.
As Mr. Flynn left a downtown Washington court house after pleading guilty, a small crowd taunted him with chants of "lock him up" – a reference to Mr. Flynn's star turn at the Republican National Convention in 2016, during which he led the hall in a similar demand for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to be imprisoned over her handling of government e-mails.
In a statement, Mr. Trump's lawyer, Ty Cobb, tried to play down the importance of Mr. Flynn's guilty plea. He referred to the retired three-star general as a "former Obama administration official" – Mr. Flynn headed the Pentagon's intelligence unit from 2012 to 2014 before he was fired amid accusations he had assigned agents to investigate conspiracy theories. Mr. Cobb said that "nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn."
But the narrative presented by Mr. Mueller indicates Mr. Flynn conferred regularly with other people in Mr. Trump's orbit while he was speaking with Mr. Kislyak. After Mr. Kislyak contacted Mr. Flynn to discuss the former president's sanctions, Mr. Flynn spoke with a Trump official at Mar-a-Lago to sort out what to tell the ambassador. In the subsequent Dec. 29 conversation with Mr. Kislyak, Mr. Flynn requested that Russia go easy on the U.S. in response to Mr. Obama's sanctions. The Kremlin opted not to retaliate against Washington, and Mr. Kislyak told Mr. Flynn this decision was made as a result of Mr. Flynn's intervention.
Likewise, Mr. Flynn's Dec. 22 and 23 calls to Mr. Kislyak on the UN resolution were made at the behest of a different Trump official. The Obama administration had already decided at the time not to stand in the way of the resolution, and Mr. Trump's circle wanted Russia to either veto it or get the vote delayed. This time, the Kremlin turned them down.
Jens Ohlin, an expert in international and criminal law, said there is not necessarily anything improper about a presidential transition team trying to build relationships with foreign governments. But the question is what, exactly, was the purpose of Mr. Flynn's discussions with Mr. Kislyak.
"It's the 'why' that bothers me," Prof. Ohlin, vice-dean of Cornell Law School, said in an interview. "If there was a deal where the Russians interfered with the election and we rewarded them by giving them better treatment, by promising to ease the sanctions, that is completely corrupt and borderline impeachable."
The news that Mr. Flynn is co-operating with the investigation is a watershed, and an indication Mr. Mueller believes he will provide substantial assistance. Mr. Mueller is a "thoroughgoing professional and there is no way he would buy a pig in a poke," said Julie O' Sullivan, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at Georgetown University. "He knows exactly what Flynn has to offer … [and] he's obviously made the call that the co-operation is worthwhile."
In exchange for his co-operation and guilty plea, Mr. Flynn receives an assurance that Mr. Mueller will ask for no more than six months' jail time – or possibly none at all. Mr. Flynn is likely to testify before the grand jury that is weighing whether to bring criminal charges against others.
Since Mr. Mueller was appointed in May, he has moved quickly. He previously charged Mr. Trump's former campaign chair, Paul Manafort, and Mr. Manafort's business associate Rick Gates with serving as unregistered lobbyists for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians and laundering millions of dollars in payments. A campaign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his discussions with Kremlin intermediaries.
"If they're moving this quickly, that tells me that people are telling the same story," said Mark Osler, a former federal prosecutor and law professor at St. Thomas University. "The trawler net is closing up."
Mr. Flynn, who served as an adviser to Mr. Trump's campaign, followed him into the White House as national security adviser. He lasted just 24 days in the job before he was dumped for lying about his discussions with Mr. Kislyak to Vice-President Mike Pence. His ouster set off a chain of events that eventually led Mr. Trump to fire FBI director James Comey, who had been overseeing the Russia probe. The resulting uproar led the Justice Department to bring in Mr. Mueller.
Mr. Comey, for his part, could not help but indulge in a little schadenfreude Friday, tweeting a passage from the Old Testament: “But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”