It’s not the crime - it’s the cover-up: Michael Flynn’s cooperation with Mueller proves the lessons of Watergate still apply
There were two big questions on Tuesday night following the release of the Flynn sentencing memo by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The first, and most puzzling for many analysts looking at the memo, was why Flynn had lied to the FBI on January 24th of last year when he was questioned about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The thinking went, gee, as the former Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn had to have known that the National Security Agency would have been listening in on any calls made by the Russian ambassador, and the FBI had to have seen those intercepts. Why would Flynn lie?
We have had some hints recently from other Trump associates facing prison time that might help us answer that question, but let’s leave it aside for a moment and deal with the second big unanswered question posed by the sentencing memo: what could Flynn have known about the Trump campaign, transition, and White House that would occasion his being questioned 19 times by investigators for Robert Mueller’s office, and “attorneys from other Department of Justice (DOJ) offices,” as the sentencing memo spelled out in a section titled, “Significance and Usefulness of Defendant’s Assistance.”
Taking a good look at that section of the memo provides some hints that will help us answer the question.
The memo begins describing the extent of Flynn’s cooperation by explaining what he assisted the government with. “The defendant has assisted with several ongoing investigations: a criminal investigation” and these words are followed immediately by a black, redacted section ending in a period.
It’s necessary to note at this point that the sentencing memo sent to the judge in the case contains no redactions. He will be reading the full descriptions of the extent of Flynn’s cooperation, and the office of the special counsel wants him to do just that because they are recommending that Flynn be given no jail time at all, indicating that his cooperation has been, as they put it in the memo, “substantial” and “timely.” Thus, it is up to us to puzzle out what the considerable redactions — possibly the most heavily redacted sentencing document of all time — may be omitting.
The first redaction clearly describes the “criminal investigation” in a few words, probably naming the subject of the investigation. The redaction is followed by a comma, and then, “the Special Counsel’s Office’s (SCO) investigation concerning any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Donald J. Trump,” then another, longer redaction followed by a period, clearly indicating that another, unnamed investigation by the Special Counsel’s office is ongoing.
So Robert Mueller has been conducting not one, but three separate investigations into Trump’s “links” to and “coordination” with Russians.
The memo goes on to state that Flynn “participated in 19 interviews” and “provided documents and communications” followed immediately by another redaction without a comma, indicating “and” some other form of information.
We have recently learned that former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen spent over 70 hours with investigators from Special Counsel Mueller’s office, including time testifying before a grand jury. Nineteen interviews with Flynn would indicate that he spent even more time with Mueller’s investigators and other DOJ lawyers. What could Flynn have told them?
The answer is: plenty. Mueller describes Flynn as “one of the few people with long-term and firsthand insight regarding the events and issues under investigation by the SCO.” He is correct. Early on during the Trump campaign, it was revealed that there was one person who traveled with Trump to nearly every single rally. That person was Michael Flynn. Trump held 186 rallies during the primary season, and 137 during the general election. Flynn went to work on Trump’s campaign in February of 2016, after Trump had held about 85 rallies.
If Flynn traveled with Trump to the rest of them, he was with him for about 100 rallies in the primaries, and 137 during the general election. Trump flew on his own plane to nearly every rally, except a few close to his home and campaign headquarters in New York City. Flynn was described as joining Trump in his private compartment on his plane, and it was said that Trump liked Flynn and trusted him, something that wasn’t said of many others on the campaign.
It’s not known how many times Flynn spoke on the phone with Russian ambassador Kislyak, but you can be sure Mueller knows. And Flynn told him what he and Kislyak discussed. Or maybe he didn’t have to. Maybe Trump told Flynn what to say to the Russian ambassador. It is known that Flynn was present for the in-person meetings between Kislyak and members of the Trump campaign at the convention, at the Mayflower Hotel, and in Trump Tower during the transition when Kislyak met with Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, among others.
You can be sure Flynn told Mueller what was said during those meetings, as well. When Flynn wasn’t on the campaign trail with Trump, he was at the campaign headquarters. As Trump’s national security adviser on the campaign, during the transition, and then briefly as president, Flynn would have been privy to any contacts we don’t know about between Trump or members of his campaign and Russians. You can be assured Flynn has told Mueller about any and all of them.
Perhaps the most significant word in the entire Flynn sentencing document has gone largely unremarked upon by commentators and in news coverage I’ve seen. That word is “government” in the sentence describing the investigation by the office of the special counsel. The investigation is described as “concerning any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of Donald J. Trump.”
Coming on the heels of revelations at the Michael Cohen hearing that he had been in contact about Trump’s planned tower in Moscow with an employee of the Russian government, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s top communications aide, this is very bad news for Trump.
As to why Flynn lied to the FBI, we once again find hints from Michael Cohen. In his appearance in court last week to plead guilty to lying before congressional committees, Cohen admitted he had lied “minimize links between the Moscow Project and Individual 1,” who is identifiable as Donald Trump “in hopes of limiting the ongoing Russia investigations.” In other words, Cohen lied to the congress as part of a cover-up of Trump’s connections to Russia and the Russian government.
Flynn lied to the FBI for the same reason: to cover-up contacts between Trump’s transition and Russians. On January 24, 2017, when he was questioned by the FBI in his office at the White House, Flynn became aware that there was an FBI investigation of the Trump campaign. Just four days after taking office, Trump may have not been aware of the FBI investigation.
But only two days later, on January 26, Sally Yates went to the White House along with a senior member of the Department of Justice national security division, and she informed the president’s counsel, Don McGahn, that Flynn had lied to the FBI and to Vice President Pence about his contacts with Ambassador Kislyak. So there is no doubt that Trump knew six days into his presidency that the FBI was conducting a counterintelligence investigation of his presidential campaign.
On February 14, 2016, the day after Flynn had resigned as Trump’s national security adviser, Trump pulled Comey aside and asked him to drop his investigation of Flynn. "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go." This was clearly an attempt to limit the FBI investigation of his campaign that Trump now knew was ongoing.
We would not become aware that the Trump campaign was under investigation by the FBI until March 20, when Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee that the bureau was investigating “coordination” between Russians and the Trump campaign. Shortly afterwards, Trump asked National Security Administration director Michael Rogers and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats to publicly “push back” against the FBI. Sometime around March 22, Trump asked Coats to pressure Comey to drop the investigation, according to reports in the Washington Post at the time.
On May 9, Trump fired Comey as Director of the FBI.
On December 1, 2017, Flynn plead guild to “willfully and knowingly” lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Kislyak. It is concerning this guilty plea that Mueller filed the sentencing memorandum on Flynn yesterday.
Just over a year has passed. Michael Flynn’s cooperation with the special counsel’s investigation has been lengthy and “significant,” as Mueller reported to the court. Its “timeliness” encouraged others involved in the Trump campaign and transition to cooperate as well. We don’t know who these people who have cooperated with Mueller are, nor do we know the identities of the subjects of the two investigations that are completely blacked out in the sentencing memo.
But if we compare Russiagate to Watergate, we can guess. There is a reason that the phrase, “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” has entered the American lexicon. This is because Richard Nixon was never charged with what is called the “underlying crime” of Watergate. It has been long suspected that he ordered the break-in at the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate, but Nixon was never charged with that crime. He was, however, charged with covering up the crime, and facing impeachment and conviction by the Senate, he resigned.
The redacted sections of the Flynn sentencing memo tell us that Robert Mueller has been investigating and apparently has gathered evidence that Donald Trump and his campaign had links to and coordinated with the Russian government in order to win the election of 2016. If Watergate is any guide, Michael Flynn isn’t the only one who’s going down for covering up that crime.