WASHINGTON (CNN/AP) — Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to making false statements to the FBI, the first Trump White House official to make a guilty plea so far in a wide-ranging investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.
As part of a plea deal, Flynn admitted that a senior member of the Trump transition team directed him to make contact with Russian officials in December 2016.
Sources tell CNN that Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is the “very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” who directed Flynn to contact the Russian ambassador, and other countries, regarding the UN Security Council vote on Israeli settlements.
Court documents show Flynn, an early and vocal supporter on the campaign trail of Trump whose business dealings and foreign interactions made him a central focus of Mueller’s investigation, will admit to lying about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the transition period before Trump’s inauguration.
The guilty plea makes the retired Army lieutenant general the first person to have actually worked in the Trump White House to face formal charges in the investigation, which is examining possible coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the outcome of the 2016 election.
The White House said late Friday morning that “nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.
“The conclusion of this phase of the special counsel’s work demonstrates again that the special counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion,” Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer, said in a statement.
White House allies initially tried to put a positive spin on the news.
One person familiar with the mood in the West Wing insisted top White House officials were breathing a sigh of relief.
“People in the building are very happy,” the source said. “This doesn’t lead back to Trump in any way, shape or form.” The source noted that Flynn is being charged for making false statements, but not for any improper actions during the campaign.
“This is a further indication that there’s nothing there,” the source said. “This is a win for the White House.”
A source with knowledge of the legal team’s thinking tells CNN the Flynn plea “is not going to be a problem” for the President, though it could be a problem for people who worked with Flynn. The source said legal exposure for others would depend on what they might have said to the special counsel.
A source who advises the administration on strategy said this was expected.
“Poor judgment. But this was expected. Trump fired him for lying to (Vice President Mike Pence). Of course, he lied to the FBI, too,” the source said.
And another source, who is close to Trump, attempted to downplay the severity of the charge against Flynn by noting that lying in Washington is not new. The source maintained that he was still not worried about any potential cooperation between Flynn and the prosecutors.
Flynn has been under investigation for a wide range of allegations, including lobbying work on behalf of Turkey, but the fact that he was charged only with a single count of false statements suggests he is cooperating with Mueller’s investigation in exchange for leniency. He was present for consequential moments in the campaign, the transition period and the early days of Trump’s presidency, campaign, making him a valuable potential tool for prosecutors and agents.
Early on in is administration, Trump had taken a particular interest in the status of the Flynn investigation. Former FBI Director James Comey, whose firing in May precipitated the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, has said Trump had asked him in a private Oval Office meeting to consider ending the investigation into Flynn. Comey has said the encounter unnerved him so much that he prepared an internal memo about it. The White House has denied that assertion.
Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI just days after Trump’s inauguration, was forced to resign in February after White House officials said he had misled them about whether he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Administration officials said Flynn had not discussed sanctions that had been imposed on Russia in part over election meddling. In charging Flynn, prosecutors made clear they believe that claim to be false.
Days after Flynn’s interview with the FBI, then-acting attorney general, Sally Yates alerted White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was potentially compromised and vulnerable to blackmail because of discrepancies between public assertions — including by Vice President Mike Pence — that Flynn and Kislyak had not discussed sanctions and the reality of what occurred.
Mueller’s team announced charges in October against three other Trump campaign officials, former chairman Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates, and a former campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his own foreign contacts.
Signs of Flynn cooperating with Mueller’s team surfaced in the past week, as his lawyers told the legal team they could no longer discuss information about the case with them. Scheduled grand jury testimony regarding Flynn was also postponed by prosecutors.
The two-page charging document makes reference to two separate conversations with Kislyak, and to separate false statements prosecutors say he made regarding that communication.
Besides a Dec. 29 conversation about sanctions, prosecutors also cite an earlier December meeting, in which Flynn asked Kislyak to delay or defeat a U.N. Security Council resolution. That appears to refer to the body’s vote a day later to condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In a striking rupture with past practice, the Obama administration refrained from vetoing the condemnation, opting instead to abstain. The rest of the 15-nation council, including Russia, voted unanimously against Israel.
At the time, Israel was lobbying furiously against the resolution and President-elect Trump’s team spoke up on behalf of the Jewish state. Trump personally called Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to press the case against the condemnation, and Egypt surprisingly postponed the scheduled showdown on Dec. 22 — the same day Flynn met Kislyak.
After more procedural wrangling, the vote occurred a day later.
Trump almost immediately condemned the U.N. result via Twitter.
“As to the U.N., things will be different after Jan. 20th,” Trump said, referencing his upcoming inauguration.
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