The bombshell announcement that Donald Trump’s top campaign surrogate and former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI as part of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe rocked the White House on Friday.
The charge stems from a Jan. 24 interview during which Flynn told FBI agents he did not discuss U.S. sanctions in conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition. His FBI interview contradicted communications intercepted by the intelligence community and relayed to members of Trump’s team.
Flynn’s guilty plea indicates he is cooperating with Mueller’s team, and he is reportedly “prepared to testify against Trump and his family” in the special counsel investigation, including that as a candidate he directed Flynn to contact with Russian officials. But there’s another member of the president’s inner circle—beyond just his immediate family—who may be implicated in Flynn’s decision to flip: Vice President Mike Pence.
Despite the White House's attempts to distance itself from Trump's onetime national security team, Flynn was an integral member of his presidential campaign and transition. At one point during the transition—which was headed by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie during the “pre-election phase” and for a brief period after Trump’s election—Ivanka Trump reportedly “took over” a team meeting to offer Flynn whatever job he wanted in the White House, citing the retired general’s “amazing loyalty” to her father.
Christie was a vocal critic of Flynn; in May, he told reporters he recommended Trump not give Flynn a job in the administration. “If I were president-elect of the United States, I wouldn’t let General Flynn in the White House, let alone give him a job,” Christie said, later adding he didn’t think Flynn “was someone who would bring benefit to the president or to the administration.”
Then president-elect Trump ignored Christie's warning, and shortly after the election, on Nov. 11, 2016, he replaced Christie as leader of the transition effort, instead installing Vice President-elect Pence.
“This team of experienced leaders will form the building blocks of our presidential transition team staff leadership roster, and will work with elected officials and tireless volunteers to prepare our government for the transfer of power on Jan. 20,” Pence said in a statement.
On Nov. 18, 2016, ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), sent Pence a letter regarding Flynn’s lobbying efforts on behalf of a foreign government. That letter cited media reports indicating Flynn was working as an agent of Turkey—details of which had emerged, and would continue to emerge, in the press. Cummings warned Flynn’s work, as well as a 2015 speech Flynn gave during a gala hosted by Russia Today, could violate the transition’s Code of Ethics.
“Lt. Gen. Flynn’s involvement in advising Mr. Trump on matters relating to Turkey or Russia – including attending classified briefings on those matters – could violate the Trump for America, Inc. Code of Ethical Conduct,” Cummings wrote. The letter also requested the transition team confirm its receipt and pledge to “review your letter carefully.”
On Jan. 4, weeks before Trump’s inauguration, Flynn told the transition team—headed by Pence—that he was under investigation for failing to disclose his work on behalf of the Turkish government, the New York Times reports. Shortly after the inauguration, Flynn’s lawyers had another conversation with Trump’s lawyers “and made clear the national security adviser would indeed be registering with the Justice Department" as an agent of a foreign government.
Flynn resigned as national security adviser on Feb. 13, after just 24 days on the job. On Mar. 8, he officially registered as a foreign agent, pursuant to the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA). The following day, Mar. 9, Pence spoke with Fox News’ Bret Baier, contradicting both Cumming’s letter to the Trump transition team and exhaustive public reports on Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkey.
Pence said Flynn’s registration the previous day was “the first I heard of it, and I think it is an affirmation of the President’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign.” Several months later, on May 19, Pence doubled down on his claim he had no knowledge of Flynn’s foreign lobbying efforts, with his office telling NBC News, “Cummings’ letter did not reach the vice president.”
1/4—McGahn was told about Flynn/Turkey, per NYT
3/9—Pence (who ran the transition); note what he says 2x—unprompted pic.twitter.com/T9eV4sAX0W
— Bradd Jaffy (@BraddJaffy) May 18, 2017
“Either he’s not telling the truth, or he was running a sloppy shop because we have a receipt…that says they received the letter,” Cummings told CNN.
MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow likewise doubted Pence’s account. “That cannot be true,” Maddow said following Pence’s original claim he did not learn of Flynn’s lobbying efforts until he registered under the FARA act.
“It is impossible this is the first Mike Pence has heard of it,” she explained. Mike Pence was the head of the [Trump] transition, while all of those news stories of Mike Flynn being on the Turkish government’s payroll were breaking. He was the head of the transition when Mike Flynn was being vetted for the National Security Advisor job. He was the head of the transition when Congress formally notified the head of the transition that Mike Flynn appears to be on a foreign government’s payroll. He was the head of the transition when Mike Flynn’s personal lawyers came and told the transition that Mike Flynn maybe needed to register as a foreign agent.”
But it wasn’t just Flynn’s lobbying efforts on behalf of Turkey that Pence has claimed to be blithely unaware of. Pence has also denied knowledge of Flynn’s conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, during which the two discussed Russian sanctions imposed by the Obama administration over the country’s interference in the 2016 election. According to the Washington Post, “the talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition.”
“The call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in, and they exchanged logistical information,” Sean Spicer, Trump’s then-spokesman, told the New York Times. “That was it, plain and simple.”
On Jan. 15, Pence likewise insisted sanctions were not discussed during the communications between Flynn and Kislyak. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence told CBS' John Dickerson.
Pressed by Dickerson, Pence insisted, “they did not have a discussion contemporaneous with U.S. actions on,” and argued Flynn had been in touch with diplomatic leaders as a function of his role as incoming national security adviser.
“That those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions,” Pence insisted.
Pence’s characterization of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak directly contradicted information gathered by the intelligence community. On Jan. 26, two days after Flynn lied to the FBI about his communications with Kislyak, former acting attorney general Sally Yates contacted the White House Counsel about Flynn.
“We began our meeting telling him that there had been press accounts of statements from the vice president and others that related conduct that Mr. Flynn had been involved in that we knew not to be the truth,” Yates told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism on May 8.
Flynn remained Trump’s national security adviser for 18 days after Yates’ initial warning to Trump’s team; at the time, the president’s team cited Flynn’s lie to Pence as the impetus behind the president’s decision.
Flynn’s ouster on Feb. 14 marked a significant moment in Trump’s young presidency. Now, with news of Flynn’s guilty plea, questions continue to mount regarding what members of Trump’s team knew—and when. CNN’s Acosta on Friday reported the White House plans to downplay the significance of Flynn’s indictment, noting he also lied to Pence, so of course he would lie to the FBI.
Via @Acosta: Source who advises WH on strategy says of Michael Flynn... "this was expected. Trump fired him for lyi… https://t.co/qjy4hBQSMI— lisa mirando (@lisa mirando)1512141732.0
Source close to White House statement to CNN emphasizes Flynn was fired for lying to Pence. Maybe this is how they… https://t.co/PoBIzQDG7C— Joe Gould (@Joe Gould)1512142288.0
But given that members of the Trump administration—and especially Vice President Pence—have previously been “blindsided” by information that was otherwise readily available, it’s unlikely the White House spin will quash questions about what the Trump team knew.
On Thursday, hours Flynn’s guilty plea was announced, Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) made if very clear the White House will have to answer for it’s stated ignorance. In a letter to Pence, Blumenathal—ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee—demanded information on the transition team’s knowledge of Flynn’s contacts.
Richard Blumenthal has sent a letter to Mike Pence (who ran the transition) seeking info on Michael Flynn's lobbyin… https://t.co/faEXKHiMSp— Kyle Griffin (@Kyle Griffin)1512091825.0
“I write to you because, as chairman of the Trump transition team, you were responsible for overseeing Mr. Flynn,” Blumenthal wrote.
Special counsel Mueller and multiple Congressional investigations into the Trump team’s contacts with Russia will likely hinge on that point: Did these leaders shirk responsibility and neglect their due-diligence while vetting appointees to some of the most important and sensitive positions in the world. Or is its something even more sinister than that?