Moments ago, the special counsel released Michael Flynn’s “Statement of the Offense.” This document lays out Flynn’s crimes in far greater detail than the short “information” released earlier today. It’s important to state this clearly as possible — the statement contains no evidence of collusion with Russia to influence the presidential election. Instead, it amplifies the fact that Flynn apparently lied about contacts that were lawful and appropriate.
First, the statement says that the day after President Obama announced sanctions in response to Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election, Flynn called a “senior official of the Presidential Transition Team (PTT)” who was with other “senior members of the PTT” at Mar-a-Lago. On the call, Flynn and the “senior official” said that they did not want Russia to “escalate the situation.” Flynn called the Russian ambassador “immediately after” his call with the senior official to communicate the incoming administration’s request. The next day, Putin announced that Russia would not retaliate against the United States, and the Russian ambassador later informed Flynn that Putin had decided not to retaliate in response to his request.
Second, the statement also says that Flynn initiated contact with Russia and other foreign governments in an effort to influence a U.N. Security Council vote on an Egyptian resolution condemning Israeli settlements. Flynn made these calls at the behest of a “very senior member” of the PTT. In this instance, Flynn was unsuccessful. The Russian ambassador told Flynn that “Russia would not vote against the resolution.”
Third, the statement briefly outlines false statements Flynn made about his relationship with the government of Turkey. These false statements appear unrelated to any dealings with Russia, in any capacity.
While Twitter will no doubt find it “shocking” and “outrageous” that Trump transition officials were trying to influence Russian policy on matters that would directly impact the Trump presidency, there is a long history of presidential campaigns and transition teams initiating contact with foreign powers. The Trump administration — not the Obama administration — would bear the primary burden of responding to any additional Russian sanctions and the fallout from the U.N. vote. In other words, we can debate the prudence of the PTT’s actions all day long, but it was not illegal, and it was not “collusion.”
At the same time, however, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump officials hid their (lawful) Russian contacts behind a smokescreen of lies. The next targets for Mueller may well be the “senior official” and the “very senior member” of the PTT. The Internet will light up with speculation about their identities — and leaks may well out them before Mueller’s ready to make his next public move — but it’s pretty clear (at least at this point) that the collusion narrative has taken a series of body blows.
One last point — a number of folks have asked me, “If there’s no collusion, why lie about these contacts?” I can think of a number of reasons, including inexperience, hubris, and paranoia. Remember, these contacts were taking place against the backdrop of a public feeding frenzy about Trump’s Russian contacts. To admit to these contacts was to churn waters already boiling with hungry sharks. So they chose the worst possible course. They lied, and they lied when active FISA warrants meant that investigators may have immediately spotted the lies. When you start the lies, it’s hard to stop — especially when you don’t know what the FBI knows, but you do know that changes in your story will almost certainly leak to the press and create yet another firestorm.
So, at the end of the day, we may well end up with multiple senior members of the administration facing prison time for covering up no crime and no collusion, just contacts. If that’s justice, it’s a form of justice that will leave no one standing on the political high ground and partisans on both sides seething with rage and bitterness.
Update: Like clockwork, it looks like the “very senior member” of the PTT who asked Flynn to contact Russia about its U.N. Security Council vote has been unmasked. Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports that it’s Jared Kushner:
At the time, the U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements was a big deal. Even though the Obama administration had less than a month left in office, the president instructed his ambassador to the United Nations to abstain from a resolution, breaking a precedent that went back to 1980 when it came to one-sided anti-Israel resolutions at the U.N.
This was the context of Kushner’s instruction to Flynn last December. One transition official at the time said Kushner called Flynn to tell him he needed to get every foreign minister or ambassador from a country on the U.N. Security Council to delay or vote against the resolution. Much of this appeared to be coordinated also with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose envoys shared their own intelligence about the Obama administration’s lobbying efforts to get member stats to support the resolution with the Trump transition team.
Unless Kushner has lied to the FBI about these contacts, this is not a scandal. Nothing that we’ve seen in any of the plea deals or indictments yet indicates any scheme to collude with Russia to influence the election. To be sure, we haven’t seen all the evidence (ABC reports that Flynn was instructed to contact Russia during the campaign, and we don’t yet know the substance of these contacts), but right now it looks like Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI about doing his job.