(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser who pleaded guilty a year ago to lying to federal law enforcement officials, has participated in 19 interviews with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office since early last year. He’s also assisted with several ongoing investigations — including an undisclosed criminal one — that are part of a probe of possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin.
All of that, plus Flynn’s “substantial assistance,” early cooperation, and acceptance of “responsibility for his unlawful conduct,” led Muller’s team to ask the court to grant Flynn a lenient sentence that doesn’t include prison time, according to a highly anticipated sentencing memo the special counsel’s office filed Tuesday night.
And there wasn’t much more than that in 13 concise and heavily redacted pages that let down anyone expecting the document to be another public narrative fleshing out lots of fresh detail about Mueller’s investigation. Still, the filing, and some new details in it, should give pause to members of Trump’s inner circle — especially the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser, Jared Kushner.
Mueller’s memo noted that federal investigators’ curiosity about Flynn’s role in the presidential transition seemed to have been sparked by a Washington Post account of a conversation he had with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in December 2016. The filing also detailed a series of lies Flynn told about his contacts with and work for the Turkish government while serving in the Trump campaign. (Given that Trump and a pair of his advisers had been pursuing a real estate deal in Moscow during the first half of 2016, Flynn might mistakenly have seen wearing two hats as noncontroversial.)
But the meat of what should worry Team Trump is in Mueller’s disclosure that Flynn has provided firsthand information about interactions between the transition team and Russian government officials — including, as was already known, several conversations with Kislyak in December 2016. Those included a discussion about lifting economic sanctions the Obama administration had imposed on Russia and about a separate matter involving a United Nations resolution on Israel.
Flynn lied to federal agents who questioned him about those chats on Jan. 24, 2017, and that was a crime (as, possibly, were his efforts as a private citizen to meddle with a sitting government’s foreign policy). The former general acknowledged lying, pleaded guilty a year ago, and then began cooperating with Mueller’s probe.
The timeline around Flynn’s conversations is crucial because it shows what’s still in play for the president and Kushner — and why Mueller may have been content to lock in a cooperation agreement that carried relatively light penalties, as well as why Flynn’s assistance seems to have subsequently pleased the veteran prosecutor so much.
Kushner’s actions are also interesting because the Federal Bureau of Investigation has examined his own communications with Kislyak — and Kushner reportedly encouraged Trump to fire his FBI director, James Comey, in the spring of 2017, when Comey was still in the early stages of digging into the Trump-Russia connection.
Comey, and his successor, Mueller, have been focused on possible favor-trading between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. We know that Russian hackers directed by Russian intelligence operatives penetrated Democrat computer servers in 2016 and gave that information and email haul to WikiLeaks to disseminate as part of an effort to undermine Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. Trump was also pursuing that business deal in Moscow in 2016 and had other projects over the years with a Russian presence. What might the Kremlin have been expecting in return? A promise to lift U.S. economic sanctions?
Kushner also had personal financial issues weighing on his mind at the time. He had spent much of 2016 trying to bail out his family from his ill-considered and pricey purchase of a Manhattan skyscraper, 666 Fifth Avenue.
After a meeting in Trump Tower with Kislyak on Dec. 1, 2016, which Flynn and Kushner attended together, the ambassador arranged another gathering on Dec. 13 for Kushner and a senior Russian banker with Kremlin ties, Sergei Gorkov. The White House has said that meeting was innocent and part of Kushner’s diplomatic duties. In a statement following his testimony before Congress in the summer of 2017, Kushner said that his interactions with Flynn and Kislyak on Dec. 1 only involved a discussion of Syria policy, not economic sanctions. He said that his discussion with Gorkov on Dec. 13 lasted less than 30 minutes and only involved an exchange of pleasantries and hopes for better U.S.-Russian relations — and didn’t include any discussion of recruiting Russians as lenders or investors in the Kushner family’s real estate business.
Kislyak enjoyed continued lobbying from the White House after his meetings with Kushner. On Dec. 22, Flynn asked Kislyak to delay a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel for building settlements in Palestinian territory. Flynn later told the FBI that he didn’t ask Kislyak to do that, which wasn’t true. Court documents filed last year said that a “very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” directed Flynn to make an overture to Kislyak about the sanctions vote. According to reporting from my Bloomberg Opinion colleague Eli Lake and NBC News, Kushner was that “senior member.” Bloomberg News reported that former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus also pushed Flynn to lobby Kislyak on the U.N. vote. (Kushner didn’t discuss pressing Flynn to contact Kislyak in his statement last summer and instead noted how infrequent his direct interactions were.)
Kushner’s role in these events isn’t discussed in Mueller’s sentencing memo for Flynn. The absence of greater detail might cause Kushner to worry: If Flynn offered federal authorities a different version of events than Kushner — and Flynn’s version is buttressed by documentation or federal electronic surveillance of the former general — then the president’s son-in-law may have to start scrambling (a possibility I flagged when Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017).
Other portions of the 2016 and early 2017 timelines still matter, too.
On Dec. 28, less than a week after Flynn called Kislyak about the U.N. vote, the ambassador contacted Flynn, according to court documents. The Obama administration had just imposed economic sanctions on Russia because of the Kremlin’s effort to sabotage the 2016 election. Kislyak apparently told Flynn that Russia would retaliate because Flynn asked him to “moderate” Russia’s response. Flynn reportedly discussed these conversations with a former Trump adviser, K.T. McFarland, on Dec. 29.
In the weeks that followed, Sally Yates, then acting U.S. attorney general, warned the Trump administration about Flynn’s duplicity and said he was a national security threat. She was fired days after that for refusing to enforce Trump’s executive order seeking to ban immigration from seven Islamic nations. The White House forced Flynn out in February of last year, and Trump fired Comey three months later. The president subsequently began using “witch hunt” to describe the investigation that Mueller inherited from Comey.
Since then, as the White House and Trump have surely absorbed and as Flynn’s sentencing memo reinforces, Mueller’s hunt has now ensnared a number of witches.
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Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”
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