Is Michael Flynn’s guilty plea a big catch in the investigation of the 2016 campaign for those who believe Donald Trump is a Kremlin puppet and hope to see him removed from office? Or is the decision by the former national security adviser and Trump confidant a proverbial “nothingburger”?
That depends very much on whether you listen to Trump foes or Trump friends. And if we follow the facts so far in the special counsel investigation, both sides are jumping to conclusions.
On the day the plea was reported last week, the confusion was exacerbated by the fact that ABC News erroneously reported that Flynn had admitted that Trump instructed him to reach out to Russian officials during the campaign, perhaps confirming collusion to help Trump’s election. After much rejoicing from anti-Trump quarters, it turned out that those instructions were given in December when Trump was already president-elect, and it was appropriate for his team to establish channels of communication with foreign powers. This is the classic “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up” situation.
But does this mean the Trump team’s contacts with Russia were innocent? Not so fast.
For one thing, the Flynn plea raises an obvious question: If he was conducting entirely appropriate talks with Russian officials, why did he lie when FBI agents asked him about the contacts? The response from Trump supporters is that Trump-Russia conspiracy theories already had turned into a feeding frenzy to which he did not want to give any more meat. If true, that was profoundly stupid. But there may be more than that.
One of the Flynn’s conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was about the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration against Russia as a penalty for Russian cyberactivities intended to disrupt the election. Flynn urged Russia to refrain from escalating the conflict in its response to the sanctions, and Kislyak agreed to encourage a moderate response. Did this constitute unauthorized negotiations with a foreign power in conflict with the United States, prohibited under the Logan Act? Such violations are seldom prosecuted; but if the Trump team knowingly signaled its nonsupport for sanctions imposed by the outgoing administration, it was a gross breach of political norms. (Then again, so is the entire Trump presidency.)
As part of his deal with special counsel Robert Mueller, Flynn has promised to testify about the Trump campaign’s pre-election Russia contacts. Could he himself be guilty of criminal conspiracy, with the deal allowing him to plead to a lesser charge? Legal experts differ on this point. It is also possible that his testimony will implicate other key members of the Trump team.
There is already new trouble on the horizon for Trump’s entourage. Reports say former Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, who had a close working relationship with Flynn, may have misled Congress about her knowledge of his contacts with Kislyak — an issue that is now holding up her confirmation hearings as envoy to Singapore.
As for collusion: We already know that by mid-2016, Trump and his top staffers had received information that Russian agents had illegally obtained emails that could embarrass and damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. When the hacked emails were released, Trump and his campaign readily used them as a weapon — knowing they were almost certainly taking advantage of a Russian scheme to influence and undermine the election. Trump also repeatedly questioned claims that Russia was behind the hacking.
If there was no evidence of more active complicity, none of this was a crime. But it is not conduct we should accept from an American president.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.