DECEMBER 3 — Robert Mueller tightened his legal vise around the White House on Friday, courtesy of several conversations that President Donald Trump’s former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, had with Russia’s ambassador to the US in December of last year.
Flynn lied to federal agents who later questioned him about those chats, and that’s a crime. Flynn has acknowledged lying, pleaded guilty on Friday, and is now cooperating with Mueller’s Justice Department probe of possible collusion between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Kremlin.
It’s worth revisiting the timeline around Flynn’s conversations because it also shows what’s at stake for the president and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner — and why Mueller appears content to let Flynn have a cooperation agreement that carries relatively light penalties.
As I noted in May, the threat to Kushner was already apparent months ago after it was reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation was exploring Kushner’s own communications with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. Kushner also had reportedly encouraged Trump to fire his FBI director, James Comey, in early May in the midst of Comey’s examination of the Trump-Russia nexus.
Quid pro quos were at the heart of Comey’s investigation and they remain central to the probe overseen by Mueller, who was appointed special counsel to supervise the investigation after Trump sacked Comey. Those might include, for example, Trump, Kushner, their campaign or their advisers receiving electoral help, diplomatic aid or financial favors from Russia in exchange for promising to lift US economic sanctions against the country — or for doing anything else to help the Kremlin.
Kushner’s support of a Comey ouster now looks particularly interesting — from a possible obstruction-of-justice standpoint alone — given that Kushner himself had been in touch with Kislyak and would have surfaced on Comey’s radar sooner or later.
Kushner also had personal financial needs weighing on him at that time. He had spent months last year trying to arrange fresh funding for a troubled Manhattan office tower that his family owns, 666 Fifth Avenue.
After a meeting in Trump Tower on Dec. 1 that Flynn and Kushner attended jointly with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador arranged a meeting on Dec. 13 for Kushner and a senior Russian banker, Sergei Gorkov, who had close Kremlin ties.
A Trump spokeswoman has previously told the New York Times that Kushner’s meetings with the Russians were standard fare for someone acting at the time as Trump’s liaison to foreign powers. But given the significance of 666 Fifth Avenue to Kushner and his family’s fortunes — and that Kushner was responsible for his family’s decision to wildly overpay for the property in 2007 — it’s also possible that he was interested in wooing the Russians as investors.
In a statement last summer following his testimony before Congress, Kushner said that his interactions with Flynn and Kislyak on Dec. 1 only involved a discussion of Syria policy. But if Flynn has offered federal authorities a different version of that meeting — or if any federal surveillance of Flynn has given investigators a different understanding — then Kushner will have some more explaining to do.
Kushner said that his Dec. 13 meeting with Gorkov, the Russian banker, lasted only 20 to 25 minutes and didn’t involve business.
Gorkov “said that he was friendly with President Putin, expressed disappointment with US-Russia relations under President Obama and hopes for a better relationship in the future,” Kushner recalled. “We had no discussion about the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. At no time was there any discussion about my companies, business transactions, real estate projects, loans, banking arrangements or any private business of any kind.”
Yet Kislyak, who left his diplomatic post in August to run for a seat in the Russian legislature, continued getting lots of attention from the White House after he intersected with Kushner.
On Dec. 22, Flynn lobbied Kislyak to delay a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel for building settlements in Palestinian territory. Flynn later told the FBI that he didn’t ask Kislyak for such a favor. Now we know that he did. That’s the first lie he told the authorities, as described in court documents released on Friday.
Israel and its national security have been important to Kushner and his family for decades. The court documents said that a “very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” directed Flynn to make an overture to Kislyak about the sanctions vote. According to reporting from my Bloomberg View colleague Eli Lake and NBC News, Kushner was the “senior member” of the Trump team encouraging Flynn to chat up Kislyak. Bloomberg News reported that former Trump advisors Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus also pushed Flynn to lobby Kislyak on the UN vote. (Kushner didn’t discuss any of this in his statement last summer.)
On Dec. 28, less than a week after Flynn called Kislyak about the UN vote, Kislyak contacted Flynn, according to court documents. The administration of President Barack Obama had just slapped Russia with economic sanctions stemming from the Kremlin’s effort to tilt the scales in Trump’s favor in the 2016 presidential election.
Presumably, Kislyak told Flynn that Russia planned to respond aggressively to the sanctions because Flynn, according to court papers, recommended that Russia “moderate” its response. He reportedly discussed this round of Kislyak conversations with another Trump advisor, K.T. McFarland, on Dec. 29.
Flynn would later tell FBI investigators that he hadn’t asked Kislyak to mute Russia’s response to US economic sanctions, and didn’t recall Kislyak agreeing to do so. That was another pair of lies that ended up getting Flynn in trouble, according to the court documents.
Back in Russia on Dec. 29, Gorkov, the banker whom Kushner met with about two weeks earlier, went on a state-controlled TV station to state his hopes that US economic sanctions imposed against his country and his bank stemming from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine “would change for the better.”
A day later, President-elect Trump took to Twitter again to praise Russian President Vladimir Putin for not responding in kind to the Obama administration’s ouster of Russian diplomats from the US:
Donald J. Trump @realDonaldTrump Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart! Twitter: Donald J. Trump on Twitter
A lot of crazy things ensued in the next few months. Sally Yates, then acting as US attorney general, tried to warn the Trump White House about Flynn’s machinations on Jan. 26, two days after the FBI interviewed him about his Kislyak conversations. She told the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, that Flynn was a security threat and had misled the vice president and others about his actions. Trump fired Yates four days later for refusing to enforce an executive order barring immigration from seven Islamic nations.
In February, the White House said that it forced Flynn to resign because he had lied to the vice president about his discussions with Kislyak. Trump said at the time that he hadn’t personally ordered Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russians but “it certainly would’ve been OK with me if he did it.”
Comey was fired a couple months later, and the day after that the president was photographed in the Oval Office chuckling with Kislyak and Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Trump also began using “witch hunt” as his favourite label for the Russia probes.
But now Flynn has been looped into a cooperation agreement with the Head Witch Hunter. Flynn also seems to present a greater existential threat to the Trump clan than another recently indicted Trump adviser, Paul Manafort, which may explain why Mueller has been relatively more generous to Flynn. And as more of these timelines become clearer and richer in detail, more cooperation agreements may be afoot. — Bloomberg View
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.