How Michael Flynn Changed Trump’s Campaign and His Presidency
Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump with Michael Flynn at a rally on October 18, 2016. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI, becoming the most senior Trump administration official to face charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Flynn was charged with “willfully and knowingly” making “false, fictitious, and fraudulent statements and representations” about his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, according to documents filed in federal court. As part of his plea deal, Flynn agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors, suggesting the Mueller investigation could be moving closer to other members of the administration.
“It has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of ‘treason’ and other outrageous acts,” Flynn said in a statement. He said he had made the decision to plead guilty and cooperate “in the best interests of my family and of our country.”
The charges against Flynn mark a precipitous fall for the retired general and former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency who first met Trump in the early days of his campaign in 2015, and soon became an influential adviser on foreign policy and national security.
“Flynn was really important to Donald Trump as a candidate. He was the most senior person in uniform out there campaigning for Trump throughout a campaign in which Trump was having trouble enlisting real, meaningful support from people with stars on their shoulders,” The Washington Post’s Greg Miller said in an interview for Putin’s Revenge, FRONTLINE’s months-long investigation into the origins of Russia’s election meddling. “He was willing to campaign for Trump in a really intense way.”
At a time when the Obama administration’s ties with Russia were strained over conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, Flynn’s prominence on the campaign signaled the possibility of warmer ties with Russia under Trump. In 2015, Flynn had advocated Washington and Moscow working more closely in the fight against ISIS. Later that year, he was paid to speak at a gala in Moscow celebrating RT, the Russian state-run TV channel, which has subsequently been labeled by U.S. intelligence as the Kremlin’s “principal international propaganda outlet.” Flynn was pictured at the gala sitting at the same table as Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Flynn wasn’t the only Trump campaign official seen as having a friendlier stance towards Russia. Among others was Paul Manafort, who before joining the campaign served as an adviser and lobbyist for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. In October, Manafort was indicted for making false statements and other counts.
“If you were Putin, you see Trump hiring and reaching out to a series of political advisers who have similar sympathies and/or links to Russia,” Ryan Lizza, of the New Yorker, told FRONTLINE. “Just all of those links, from Moscow’s perspective, they had to be thinking, ‘Wow, this is someone, at the very least, we can do business with.”
The charges against Flynn stem from false statements he made to the FBI this January about his calls with Kislyak in December 2016. On Dec. 28, then-President Barack Obama began the move to impose sanctions and expel 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives in response to Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election. According to court documents filed by Mueller’s team, Kislyak contacted Flynn on that very day, asking about the sanctions.
“[Flynn] was a Trump confidante who was deeply suspicious of people who were in the Obama administration,” said Robert Costa of The Washington Post in an interview with FRONTLINE. “So, he wants to talk to Kislyak on his own; he wants to talk with other foreign leaders on his own.”
The day after Kislyak contacted him, Flynn talked to an unnamed “senior official” of Trump’s transition team about the potential impact of those sanctions on the Trump administration’s foreign policy goals, according to court documents. They discussed how members of the transition team “did not want Russia to escalate the situation.”
Flynn called the Russian ambassador “immediately” after his phone call with the senior official to ask that Russia “only respond in a reciprocal manner.” The following day, Putin announced that although Russia had “the right to retaliate,” it would not take action at the time, and instead would “plan our further steps to restore Russian-U.S. relations based on the policies of the Trump administration.”
According to the government, when the FBI interviewed Flynn in January, he falsely stated that he didn’t ask Kislyak to refrain from a more aggressive response to U.S. sanctions. Flynn was also charged with giving a false statement about another communication with Kislyak, saying he did not ask the Russian ambassador to delay or defeat a United Nations resolution to condemn Israeli settlements.
In a statement, White House lawyer Ty Cobb called the former national security adviser a “former Obama administration official,” adding that, “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates any one other than Mr. Flynn.”
Flynn’s false statements about his contacts with Kislyak would ultimately spark a chain of events leading to Mueller’s appointment as special counsel.
Flynn resigned as national security adviser after it was revealed that Vice President Mike Pence had been misled by Flynn about the nature of his call to Kislyak. Former FBI Director James Comey would later testify that Trump interceded on Flynn’s behalf, telling Comey that Flynn was a “good guy,” and hoping that Comey could “let this go.” Trump fired Comey in May, and reportedly told Russian officials — including Kislyak — that the firing had relieved “great pressure” on him.
Seven months later, however, investigators have now brought charges against four individuals associated with the Trump campaign, and Mueller’s probe appears far from resolved.