I can still identify those moments during the presidential race when my stomach churned, among them the first night of the Republican convention during a speech by Michael Flynn. I was on the floor, just in front of the stage, as he spoke. I was startled; a retired three-star general, he was goading the delegates into a rolling chant of “Lock her up”. They meant Hillary, of course.
As news broke this Friday of his entering a guilty plea in a Washington DC court for lying to the FBI about contacts he had had with Russia during the transition following Donald Trump’s victory, I was surely not alone in thinking about that night. Flynn could theoretically get five years for his single count. (Martha Stewart was given five months for lying about stock dealing.)
“That’s right – lock her up,” Flynn declared, his neck arteries fairly swelling with righteousness. “Damn right... And you know why we’re saying that? We’re saying that because, if I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth – a tenth – of what she did, I would be in jail today.”
The greater irony is what he said in that same speech about America confronting its enemies, something Barack Obama, he inferred, had failed to do. “We should clearly define our enemies ... face them head-on ... and then defeat those that seek to threaten our country and our way of life.” Enemies like Russia, perhaps, which at that very moment, we are now all agreed, was trying to do precisely that, if you count being a democracy as part of a nation’s way of life.
Flynn actually served in the last administration as Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2104 until he was fired by President Obama, who, we were later to learn, personally cautioned Trump against giving him any kind of important position because he was not be trusted. So Trump made him his National Security Adviser, thumbing his nose at Obama.
Big mistake. We knew that even in February, when Flynn, barely a month into the job, found himself fired again for lying to others in the White House, including Vice President Pence, about the nature of contacts he’d had with the Russian ambassador to the US. If we hadn’t already grasped how big a problem Russia was going to become for Trump before, we did on that day.
Just how big a mistake keeping Flynn will turn out to have been for Trump we are yet to find out. Clearly, his guilty plea is the single most shocking public development in the Russian meddling probe to date, not least because the implication of it is that he will now be cooperating with the investigators. Flynn may be spilling the beans as we speak. Or maybe he has been for weeks.
It would be hard for anyone to spin this one. When Robert Mueller, the special counsel, revealed he was charging Paul Manafort in the case, the White House evinced a shrug. Yes, Manafort had been campaign manager, and principle architect of the convention, but only for a short time. As for George Papadopoulos, the foreign policy adviser who’d plead guilty also to lying to the FBI about Russia, well, his role had been so tiny, hardly anyone could remember the man.
None of that will work with Flynn and not just because he was so close to Trump during the campaign, in the transition and for the few weeks when he ran the National Security Council. The greater problem with what happened in court on Friday is this: documents released as part of the plea-bargain state that Flynn was talking to the ambassador, Sergey Kysliak, at the behest of a “very senior member” of Trump’s presidential transition team.
Who was that? We don’t know, but officials who were in a position to give him directions during the transition period included the President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was also recently interviewed by Mueller’s team. More urgently: was Trump aware of what had been going on?
It matters a great deal also that we know, thanks to FBI wire-tapping, the content of the contacts between Flynn and Kysliak during the transition. They spoke first about a pending UN resolution to condemn Israel for building new settlements in the Occupied Territories and second about US sanctions that Obama had imposed on Russia precisely for its supposed attempts to meddle in the elections. Court documents now show that on 29 December Flynn contacted members of the transition at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, “to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about the US sanctions”.
Those of us who were disgusted by Flynn’s 2016 antics, at the convention but also as a warm-up act for countless Trump rallies out on the trail, may have taken a smidgen of pleasure from the 45 minutes he found himself before a judge on Friday, his wife at his side. The one-time three-star general was truly humiliated. And they haven’t even passed sentence on him yet.
But on to the bigger picture. There is nothing in the public domain yet to prove collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia to help him defeat Hillary Clinton and become US president. That, after all, is what lies at the heart of all of this, so it remains important to say that. The White House will doubtless be repeating it over and over all this weekend.
But that said, if there has been a cloud over this White House for the past several months, it has now become many shades more ominous. At this point it has swallowed four associates of Trump, including his former National Security Adviser, each charged with felony crimes related in some way or another to Russia. (The fourth is Rick Gates, a close associate of Manafort.) That is bad enough. But this an incubus that is on the move and very soon it may settle over others. The question is when. And whom.
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