Flynn's plea deal puts Mueller inside Trump's inner circle with a message: 'We're coming for you'
Here are the important dates detailing Michael Flynn's relationship with Russia that led to his resignation. Wochit-All
WASHINGTON — The carefully worded account of Michael Flynn’s offenses and his agreement to cooperate with Russia special counsel Robert Mueller represents more than the stunning fall of a former three-star general and top Trump administration official.
The extraordinary six-page document filed Friday by prosecutors investigating Russia’s interference in the 2016 election also sent a clear signal to the White House that Mueller now knows who helped Flynn coordinate his contacts with the Kremlin and worked to keep those communications quiet.
Flynn, according to the court documents, shattered any notion that the former national security adviser was a free-lancer.
In a series of late December telephone calls, just weeks before President Trump's inauguration, prosecutors asserted that at least one "senior" transition team member — working from Trump's Mar-a-Largo resort in Palm Beach, Fla.— helped craft Flynn's discussions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislayk, urging the Russians to moderate their response to sanctions leveled just a day earlier by the Obama administration.
The senior official, who was not identified by prosecutors, and Flynn addressed the issue at least twice, before Flynn on New Year's Eve shared Kislyak's promise that Russia would not retaliate with a larger group of senior transition members.
Flynn acknowledged Friday that he lied to FBI agents about those contacts, resulting in his guilty plea, but legal analysts said the former national security adviser's promise to cooperate with Mueller's team — more than his conviction — has likely sent a shiver through the White House.
His sentencing is delayed until Flynn's cooperation is complete. He faces up to six months in prison.
“The special counsel now has an ally who understands that he will only get a benefit if he cooperates with the investigation," Jack Sharman, a former House special counsel in the Whitewater investigation of President Clinton. "And the meaning of cooperation is entirely within the control of the prosecutors.
"I would think that there would be some considerable anxiety over there (at the White House), unless people there have an understanding of what he could testify to. But only Flynn really knows what he is prepared say."
Patrick Cotter, a former federal prosecutor, called Mueller's move Friday a "masterful use of court documents that both supported the criminal case against Flynn and deliberately put others in Trump's inner circle on notice."
"You couldn't send a message any better or any stronger unless you had access to the Goodyear Blimp," Cotter said. "That message: 'We're coming for you.' "
The documents, analysts said, also call into serious question the White House’s explanation for Flynn's February dismissal after only 24 days on the job. By then, the FBI had opened its investigation into the former national security adviser related to his contacts with Russia.
At the time, President Trump said Flynn lied to Vice President Pence when he told Pence that he had not discussed sanctions against Russia — leveled in retaliation for interfering in the election — in the pre-inaugural contacts with Russia.
Yet Friday's court documents state that other top transition officials were fully aware of Flynn’s conversations.
Trump has publicly denied that he directed Flynn to make such contacts and the president's private lawyers declined to comment Friday.
Cotter, however, said the new information disclosed along with Flynn's guilty plea now provides a possibly darker context to Flynn's firing.
A day after Flynn's forced Feb. 13 resignation, then-FBI Director James Comey has asserted that Trump urged him to backoff its investigation of Flynn.
"I hope you can let this go," Comey said the president told him during their private Feb. 14 meeting. Trump has denied making such a comment.
"The contents of the court documents filed today only put President Trump's request that Comey drop the Flynn investigation into a more sinister light," Cotter said, suggesting that Trump knew the kind of damaging information that Flynn could offer later.
"He (Trump) never wanted to happen what happened today," the former prosecutor said.
Special White House Counsel Ty Cobb distance the Flynn plea and pledge of cooperation from the administration, saying Flynn admitted to the same lies that got him fired by Trump.
"Today, Michael Flynn, a former national security adviser...during the Trump administration, and a former Obama administration official, entered a guilty plea to a single count of making a false statement to the FBI," Cobb said in written remarks.
"Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates any one other than Mr. Flynn," Cobb said.
Nevertheless, Flynn's disclosures — perhaps more than any development yet in Mueller's far-flung inquiry — have Democrats smelling blood.
“With this guilty plea and cooperation, Mr. Mueller can pursue the whole truth of the Trump campaign’s involvement in Russia’s meddling in our election, and any obstruction of justice," Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a member of the Judiciary Committee who represents Flynn's home state of Rhode Island. "Flynn’s testimony has the potential to shed light on some of the most pressing questions about the behavior of the president, his top advisers, and his campaign."
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee which also is investigating Russia's interference, said Flynn's cooperation "cannot be overstated."
"The plea secured by Mueller may prompt the White House and its allies to seek to curtail congressional investigations, as President Trump has attempted to do already, or end the special counsel’s work prematurely," Schiff said. "Congress must make it clear that this would not be acceptable...and do everything in our power to ensure the independence of the special counsel."