Washington It’s a truism of Washington scandals that it’s not the initial actions that lead to legal disaster but the attempt to cover them up. That appears to be so in Friday’s indictment of former national security adviser Michael Flynn — and in the broader investigation of the Trump team’s contacts with Russia.
This sweater has been unraveling from a thin initial thread. When I reported on Jan. 12 the phone calls between Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 29 — which were at the center of Friday’s indictment and guilty plea — the propriety of Flynn’s actions was a matter of legitimate debate.
Because the Obama administration had expelled 35 Russian diplomats that same day to retaliate against Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 campaign, my column posed the basic question: “What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?” But even if it had undermined Obama’s move and checked Russian reprisal, that wasn’t a capital crime. “If the Trump team’s contacts helped discourage the Russians from a counter-retaliation, maybe that’s a good thing,” my column noted. “But we ought to know the facts.”
Flynn’s catastrophic mistake was that he lied about the Dec. 29 calls, first in denials to Trump spokesmen that were shared with me and other reporters on Jan. 12, then to Vice President Mike Pence and, most important, to FBI officials who interviewed him on Jan. 24. The indictment specified that Flynn made “false, fictitious and fraudulent statements” when he told FBI agents he hadn’t urged Kislyak “to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia that same day.”
Why was Flynn lying about the Kislyak calls? What was he covering up? We have a hint in the “Statement of the Offense” that accompanies the plea agreement. The prosecutors say that Flynn cleared his comments to Kislyak beforehand with an unnamed official who is described as “a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” who was staying with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Only then, with top-level approval to discuss sanctions, did Flynn call the Russian ambassador.
Say what you like about Flynn, but an ex-general follows the chain of command. Given his seniority as the designated national security adviser, there are only two people who would likely have authorized this contact with Russia: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who had been conducting his own extensive back-channel contacts with Kislyak and other Russians, and the president-elect himself, who had said throughout the campaign that he wanted to improve relations with Russia.
The public lies about the Dec. 29 call began to cascade. But the most senior levels of the Trump transition team were aware, from the first, of what really happened. Their silence condoned the lies. Given that Trump publicly thanked Russian president Vladimir Putin on Dec. 30 for not retaliating, it has always been hard to believe that Trump wasn’t aware of the Flynn-Kislyak discussions. Now we’ll know the truth. The plea agreement makes clear that Flynn is cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller about his discussions with the “senior official” and others.
And then, as happens in a cover-up, the lies began to get twisted. Flynn resigned under pressure on Feb. 13, following The Washington Post’s disclosure that he had, indeed, discussed sanctions. The next day, Trump met privately with then-FBI director James Comey. According to a memo Comey wrote afterward, Trump said: “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
This attempt to curb prosecution of Flynn was part of the chain of events that led to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel. This part of the circle closed Friday, as Mueller obtained a guilty plea from the man Trump had sought to protect from investigation.
At the center of this story is a mystery that will propel the rest of the inquiry: What was Trump so worried about, that made him deny contacts with Russia and denounce attempts to investigate those contacts? What was he afraid might emerge?
Was it the 30-year history of his dealings with Russian business and political leaders in his attempts to do big business deals, described in a recent column? Was it the help Russian operatives were offering in dishing dirt on his opponent, Hillary Clinton, as documented in the email correspondence of Donald Trump Jr., and in Mueller’s plea agreement several weeks ago with campaign aide George Papadopoulos?
What was Trump afraid of? Week by week, more pieces of this puzzle emerge.
— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.