Michael Flynn’s firing: A lie, a leak, and then a liability

NBC News

Michael Flynn’s firing:
A lie, a leak, and then a liability

Inside the 25 days that shook the Trump presidency.

By Carol E. Lee       December 3, 2020

Donald Trump pardons ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn | Financial  Times

WASHINGTON — Michael Flynn was looking for a criminal defense attorney — on the internet.

The sun had set and much of the White House staff had cleared out for the night. Nearly alone, Flynn hovered over his assistant who was seated at her desk just outside his corner office, scanning attorney biographies on her computer screen.

He hadn’t told the president or his top advisers what prompted the Google search: Two FBI agents had interviewed him that afternoon about his contacts with Russia.

It was Flynn’s fifth day as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser. On Feb. 13, 2017, the 25th day of the Trump presidency, Flynn would be gone, fired for lying to the vice president and the FBI.

Now, after twice pleading guilty to making false statements to federal agents, Flynn is a free man — thanks to a president who says his former national security adviser was targeted by an overzealous FBI in a set up orchestrated by political foes. On a balmy Thanksgiving eve in Washington, Trump short-circuited the judicial process to grant Flynn a full pardon. He wished the retired Army general and his family a warm holiday. And Flynn returned the favor by appealing to the president’s leading grievance, writing that his former boss has been “viciously targeted” as a victim of “a coup against our nation.”

The president’s Nov. 25 pardon abruptly capped nearly four years of legal and political drama that began when Trump fired a national security adviser he’d come to privately disparage and ended with the White House declaring Flynn “an innocent man.”

“The president has pardoned General Flynn because he should never have been prosecuted,” the White House statement read. Vice President Mike Pence has so far been silent about the pardon. After portraying himself as a victim of Flynn’s deception who unwittingly repeated his falsehoods publicly, Pence earlier this year said he believes Flynn unintentionally misled him about his clandestine talks with the Russians.

But a comprehensive examination of his time as Trump’s national security adviser, including interviews with more than 20 people who were directly involved in uncovering or covering up his actions, suggests that Flynn knowingly misled investigators and the president’s inner circle repeatedly. Once considered one of the country’s top intelligence officials and skilled in deception, Flynn not only concealed key details of his conversations with Vladimir Putin’s handpicked ambassador in Washington, but also an investigation he knew was closing in on him.

By the end of the first week of Trump’s presidency, as the new administration plunged itself into foreign and domestic turmoil, a small group of senior White House officials had been repeatedly confronted with the truth about Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak – that they had discussed newly-imposed U.S. sanctions against Moscow. They also learned that two FBI agents had questioned Flynn about those conversations in a secure conference room just a short walk from the Oval Office, and that he’d answered with a false account similar to the one he’d given Pence.

“Everyone’s forgetting that Flynn was fired because he was lying to everyone,” one senior White House official directly involved with the Flynn matter said recently. “After weeks of asking him, he was still saying he never talked to the Russian ambassador about sanctions.”

And as officials grappled with Flynn’s own cover-up, they too engaged in similar action. The president and his closest aides worked to keep the revelations, including warnings from senior Justice Department officials that Flynn could be blackmailed by the Russians, from the public and just about every senior official in the fledgling administration all the way up to the vice president.

White House officials who worked alongside Flynn when he was national security adviser described a perfect storm of secrecy, distrust, loyalty and confusion that enabled the retired three-star general to remain on the payroll of the American taxpayers, with access to the country’s most tightly held secrets and at the helm of life-and-death decisions — despite knowledge at the highest levels of government that he could be a liability.

Those who agreed to share details from that time spoke to NBC News over many months on the condition of anonymity.

Their recollections revealed angry confrontations between a deceptive Flynn and his colleagues in the West Wing, an indecisive president more worried about his public image than the potential national security implications of Flynn’s actions, and a White House counsel searching for a crime instead of confronting a potential threat. Key evidence that Flynn had lied was only shared with Pence when its existence became public — 15 days after Trump and a handful of senior White House officials were informed of it.

This period of time, which was the subject of intense examination by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, stood at the intersection of his investigations: how Russia interfered in the 2016 election, whether Trump associates conspired with Moscow in that endeavor, and if the president attempted to obstruct the FBI’s investigation into any such coordination.


Flynn was one of the first Trump associates to be ensnared in the Russia investigation – and on Nov. 25 of this year he became the first to be relieved of the legal consequences of being a convicted felon.

Trump’s use of the presidential pardon power circumvented a pending decision by a federal judge, Emmet Sullivan, on whether to move forward with sentencing Flynn after the Justice Department filed a motion on May 7 to dismiss the case. Leadership at the Justice Department wasn’t consulted about the pardon and had preferred to see through the request for dismissal, which argued there was no investigation to justify the FBI interview in which the former national security adviser made false statements.

Flynn admitted to making false statements in that interview not only about his Russia contacts but also his attempt during the Trump transition to scuttle an Obama administration effort to condemn Israeli settlements with a resolution at the United Nations. As part of his plea deal, Flynn further admitted to giving false statements to the Justice Department about being paid for lobbying on behalf of the government of Turkey.

Sullivan balked at the Justice Department’s motion to dismiss a case the president had relentlessly portrayed as unfair in his efforts to undermine the Mueller investigation. Sullivan brought in a retired federal judge — who, as an assistant U.S. attorney, had prosecuted the mafia boss John Gotti — to argue that the judicial branch can reject a Justice Department request to dismiss a case if it’s believed to be politically motivated.

This past summer, Flynn tried to force Sullivan to grant the Justice Department’s motion. But the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately rejected the effort.

It was one of many dramatic twists and turns in the sentencing of Flynn since he first appeared in Sullivan’s court in December of 2018. At that time the judge angrily rejected Mueller’s recommendation that Flynn merely be put on probation because he was a model cooperating witness. Over the next year, Flynn made the surprise decision to hire new lawyers, broke from the federal prosecutors he’d cooperated with and requested to withdraw his guilty plea.

“In truth, I never lied,” Flynn wrote in a court filing this past January. “I will fight to restore my good name.”

In response to specific questions about this article, Flynn’s lawyer, Sidney Powell, referred NBC News to court filings posted on her website.

Flynn’s first lawyer, Robert Kelner, declined to comment. The White House and Pence’s office had no comment.

A pardon for Flynn was a long-sought outcome for the president who hired him, fired him and, until losing re-election, said he’d consider bringing him back into the White House.

From his earliest days in office Trump has sought to shield Flynn from federal investigation, reportedly asking his then-FBI director to let any inquiry go. And after distancing himself from Flynn when he cooperated with the Mueller investigation, Trump later latched onto his case as a political cudgel. Flynn became a cause célèbre for the president and his Republican base.

Had Sullivan sentenced Flynn, Trump made clear he would pardon him, and the president’s team had been prepared since at least June for an announcement. “There was no question internally whether he would pardon Flynn,” a senior White House official said. It was just a matter of when.

In September, Powell, Flynn’s lawyer, said during a court hearing that she had spoken with the president directly and asked him not to pardon her client. But with Trump leaving the White House on Jan. 20, time was running out. “That was the motivation,” the senior White House official said of the timing.

Still, the pardon changes nothing about why Trump has said he fired Flynn: because he lied. Neither does Flynn’s reversal on his guilty plea. Or Pence’s newly adopted view that he is now “more inclined to believe” Flynn didn’t intentionally lie to him.

That Flynn remains the leading personification of Trump’s grievances – namely that forces are out to get him – and a catalyst for additional presidential pardons based on similar motivations makes his time as national security adviser and the circumstances around his firing newly germane.

Despite the lies and warnings that Flynn could be compromised, the president and his closest aides didn’t seriously discuss firing Flynn until the controversy was made public by journalists. That delay allowed Flynn to play a leading role in every sensitive national security decision in the early days of the Trump presidency:

* Trump’s hastily executed order banning travel to the U.S. by individuals from some majority-Muslim countries.

* An ill-fated counterterrorism raid in Yemen that led to the death of a Navy SEAL.

* A North Korea missile launch that caught the new administration flat-footed at the president’s Florida resort.

* Flynn publicly put Iran “on notice” over its aggression in the Middle East, a move that foreshadowed sharply escalated tensions between Washington and Tehran.

* As head of the National Security Council, Flynn arranged for a permanent council seat for the president’s chief political strategist, Steve Bannon, an unusual move and an unwelcome surprise to Trump.

Jan. 26, 2017

Trump was unmoved.

White House counsel Don McGahn was sharing what he had just learned: Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI and may have lied. McGahn had just met with Acting Attorney General Sally Yates for about 15 minutes and chief among Yates’ concerns was that Flynn wasn’t truthful with Pence and other White House officials when he told them he had not discussed U.S. sanctions with Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador in Washington, during phone calls several weeks before Trump’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017.

Flynn and Kislyak spoke on Dec. 29, 2016, the same day the Obama administration announced new sanctions against Russia in response to Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election held the month before. They spoke again two days later, after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced he would not retaliate against the U.S. for the sanctions. Putin’s restraint had shocked American intelligence officials, who only later learned about Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak while analyzing Russia’s response to the sanctions.

Flynn’s Dec. 29 conversation with Kislyak became public in news reports on Jan. 12. Three days later, Pence said publicly that after talking to Flynn he could confirm that call “had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.” That raised concerns at the Justice Department that Pence might also be in on the deception with Flynn.

The White House didn’t know it but the FBI had previously opened an investigation into Flynn because of concerns about his relationship with the Russian government. And Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak, as well as his false assurance to Pence that they didn’t discuss sanctions, had raised new alarms among investigators.

McGahn explained Flynn’s possible legal exposure: the perjury statute and the Logan Act, which makes it illegal for any American to negotiate with foreign governments in a dispute with the U.S. without authorization from the current U.S. government.

Trump, with his chief of staff Reince Priebus and senior adviser Stephen Bannon by his side, listened but seemed unphased. He asked McGahn to start again.

McGahn told the president he didn’t think the FBI clearly had Flynn on charges of giving false statements and, after meeting with Yates, McGahn wasn’t sure what the issue was: Is Flynn a security risk? Should the president get rid of him? Is the national security adviser under investigation?

That’s when Trump perked up: “Not again, this guy, this stuff.”

The president had already grown frustrated with Flynn, in what one senior White House official described as “a personality clash.” Trump had started complaining to aides about Flynn during the transition. He thought Flynn interrupted him too much during briefings and that his Kislyak contacts were generating a steady stream of negative press coverage. Just days into his presidency, Trump wouldn’t even look at Flynn during intelligence briefings. “He couldn’t stand Mike Flynn,” another senior White House official said. “He wanted to fire Flynn before he even got to the White House.”

Trump told McGahn, Priebus and Bannon not to discuss the issue with any other White House officials. Instead, he directed them to figure out the problem and come back with a plan.

“Then no one looked into it,” with any urgency, a senior White House official at the time said.

Bannon was the one official among them who seemed to possibly know for weeks that Flynn had been lying. He’d spoken with Flynn about the sanctions on Jan. 1 — the day after Flynn’s second discussion with Kislyak — and they agreed they had “stopped the train on Russia’s response,” according to Mueller’s report.


Trump has insisted he had no knowledge of Flynn’s discussions about sanctions with Kislyak before the talks took place, though federal investigators later found it implausible that senior officials including Bannon and Flynn would have kept it from him.

The circle of people with knowledge of Flynn’s lies, his FBI interview, and the Justice Department’s warning, was tight. But McGahn made a decision to widen it slightly when he ignored Trump’s instructions and tapped John Eisenberg, a deputy White House counsel and legal adviser to the National Security Council, to figure out whether Flynn had given false statements to the FBI or violated the Logan Act.

McGahn also figured there must be a recording of Flynn’s phone call with Kislyak that they could listen to. The National Security Agency had wiretapped the phone of the Russian ambassador. It’s a standard U.S. intelligence operation that Flynn, a former military intelligence officer, later said he knew about when the FBI interviewed him on Jan. 24.

Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe had called Flynn on a secure phone line around lunch time that day to tell him the FBI wanted to come by the White House to talk to him about his contacts with Russians.

McCabe told Flynn he could have a lawyer present, though stressed that the matter would be handled more quickly if he didn’t. He also said if Flynn did bring along a lawyer, officials at the Justice Department would also have to get involved.

Flynn replied that he didn’t need a lawyer.

He agreed to meet without asking McCabe for any details.

Ahead of their arrival at the White House, FBI officials discussed how to approach Flynn. “What’s our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” one official wrote in a memo.

By 2:15 p.m. Flynn was alone in the White House with two FBI agents, including FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok. Flynn appeared in a good mood. He talked about everything from hotels he’d stayed at during the presidential campaign to terrorism to Trump’s knack for interior design. He even offered the agents “a little tour” of the West Wing, walking them right past Trump and a couple of movers discussing where to place artwork.

When the conversation moved to his contacts with Kislyak, Flynn “was fully aware that federal officials routinely monitor, record, and transcribe such conversations with foreign officials,” he later wrote in a court filing, and knew the FBI probably had transcripts of his calls.

And yet there in the White House, with the two FBI agents, he denied asking Kislyak to hold back on moves that would escalate tensions. “It wasn’t, ‘don’t do anything,’” he said.

Flynn also said he didn’t remember a follow-up conversation with Kislyak, after Putin announced he would not escalate. That’s when the ambassador told Flynn his request had gone to the highest levels of the Russian government.

Despite the obvious discrepancies, the agents later noted that Flynn displayed no “indicators of deception” and didn’t leave them with the impression that he was lying or thought he was lying. Within hours of their departure, Flynn would be on the hunt for a lawyer.

Jan. 27, 2017

It’s possible the president’s national security adviser broke the law.

That’s what deputy White House counsel Eisenberg told his boss on a Friday morning, exactly one week after Trump’s inauguration.

After an initial look at Flynn’s conduct, Eisenberg suggested that Flynn might have given false statements to the FBI or violated the Logan Act. But, he noted, no one has ever been successfully charged under the Logan Act, and he downplayed the likelihood the Justice Department would pursue such charges.

McGahn told Eisenberg to ask Yates back to the White House for another meeting.

McGahn, Priebus and Bannon were already suspicious of Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, and questioned her motives. Obama officials made clear they had no respect for Flynn. Obama had ousted Flynn as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. And after the 2016 election, Obama personally advised Trump against hiring Flynn.

McGahn’s second meeting with Yates was also 15 minutes long but more contentious. McGahn questioned why it would matter to the Justice Department if one White House official lied to another. Yates replied that this situation “was a whole lot more than that,” walking McGahn again through her concerns.

He asked if taking action against Flynn would interfere with an FBI investigation into his conduct. Yates said it would not. “It wouldn’t really be fair of us to tell you this and then expect you to sit on your hands,” she said.

That’s when McGahn asked for evidence. “Is this something we could see?” Yates said she couldn’t give him the recordings of Flynn’s conversation but said she’d look into getting him transcripts.


A few paces away in the Oval Office, Trump called FBI Director James Comey, who was in charge of the Russia investigation, to invite him to the White House that night for dinner. The previous evening, Trump had asked several of his senior advisers during dinner what they thought of Comey.

Bannon and Priebus seemed nervous about the president dining alone with the FBI director. “Do you want someone to come with you?” Bannon asked Trump. Trump said he wanted to have dinner with Comey alone, that he was just meeting with him to decide whether to keep him in the job.

“Don’t talk about Russia, whatever you do,” Priebus told the president. Trump promised he wouldn’t.

But alone with Comey in the Green Room on the main floor of the White House, Trump did just that.

And he indicated he was souring on Flynn. To illustrate the point, he told Comey a story about Flynn waiting six days after Putin had reached out to Trump to schedule a return phone call with the Russian leader.

“The guy has serious judgment issues,” Trump said.

Jan. 28 to Feb. 2, 2017

“How’d it go?” Bannon asked the president the next after his dinner with Comey.

All the president revealed was that he had determined Comey was a good guy whom he intended to keep.

It was Saturday and Trump was about to hold his first phone call as president with Putin. Kislyak had tried multiple times for weeks to get Flynn to arrange for the two leaders to speak the day after Trump’s inauguration. The Russians had wanted it to be via secure video. But Flynn didn’t respond to those requests from Kislyak, who even left a voicemail for the incoming national security adviser the day before the inauguration asking for “an answer to the idea of our two president’s speaking.”

A week after the Russians had hoped that conversation would take place, Flynn, Pence, Priebus, Bannon and White House press secretary Sean Spicer had gathered around the Resolute Desk, while Trump was on the phone call with Putin.

Across the West Wing, a different phone call was about to be set up.

Mary McCord, the acting assistant attorney general who had accompanied Yates to her first meeting with McGahn, received an email sent from Flynn’s White House account requesting a secure phone call to follow up on the McGahn meeting. It was odd enough that Flynn was sending her an email. But what made this truly a mystery for McCord is that the email was signed by Eisenberg.

She decided not to reply and instead sent a new email directly to Eisenberg.

The following day, she and Eisenberg spoke. He told McCord that he had been in Flynn’s office the day before and an assistant had accidentally switched his and Flynn’s phones when giving them back. He then said that he and Flynn had the same password for their phones, and so he accidentally sent the email from the national security adviser’s account.

He also told McCord that from now on he would be handling the Flynn matter, not McGahn.

They spoke again the next day, Monday, about arranging for Eisenberg to review the transcripts of Flynn’s call with Kislyak. Yates also called McGahn to tell him the transcripts were ready for review.

Within hours of their discussion that morning of Jan. 30, Trump fired Yates, citing her refusal to enforce his travel ban.

McCord emailed Eisenberg Tuesday to say the transcripts were ready for him to review and she put him in touch with Peter Strzok, one of the FBI agents who interviewed Flynn and was involved with the case.

Eisenberg didn’t respond. She emailed him again the following day to ask if he’d accessed the transcripts. He didn’t respond until Feb. 2.

Within hours, two FBI agents arrived at the White House carrying a secure briefcase containing the highly classified transcripts.

McGahn told Eisenberg to look them over and report back on potential issues.

Flynn, meanwhile, held a meeting with National Security Council officials in the auditorium of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next to the White House.

When one of them asked him what he thought about Yates refusing to defend Trump’s travel ban — and generally the idea of an administration official refusing to implement a president’s policies — Flynn was dismissive. “What she did was illegal,” he replied.

Eisenberg sat with the two FBI agents in McGahn’s West Wing office and read through the transcripts. It was clear Flynn had misled Pence.

But it wasn’t clear to Eisenberg what criminal charge deceiving the vice president would bring.

Eisenberg asked the FBI agents: Is this it? What am I missing? Is this a big deal?

The agents remained stone-faced and didn’t respond.

The agents packed up the documents in the briefcase and left the White House.

Eisenberg wrote a memo outlining the possible crimes Flynn could be accused of committing. But he wasn’t sure the White House had enough information to make a recommendation to the president. He discussed his findings with McGahn and they agreed that Flynn was unlikely to be charged with violating the Logan Act. However, they remained unsure if Flynn was vulnerable to a charge of giving false statements in his FBI interview.

The next day, Flynn had a private lunch with Trump in the presidential dining room.

Feb. 6 to Feb. 8, 2017

Trump had barely begun settling into the White House and was already seething over the latest chyrons scrolling across cable news about his administration.

He was in the Oval Office with Flynn, complaining about negative media coverage that had been circulating for almost a month about the calls with Kislyak. The details of Trump and Flynn’s private conversation were disclosed by Flynn to investigators and included in the final report issued by the Special Counsel.

The president wanted specifics. So Flynn dutifully listed the dates on which he said he had spoken with Kislyak.

When Trump asked what he and Kislyak talked about — the question driving the controversy — Flynn said that they might have discussed the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia. It was a stunning departure from his insistence to the vice president, other senior White House officials, and the FBI that the topic had not come up.

Trump didn’t seem particularly shocked, according to Flynn’s own retelling of the meeting. And, he told investigators, that the president actually corrected him on one of the dates on which he said he’d spoken with Kislyak.

At 4 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 8, Comey arrived at the White House for a meeting with Priebus.

Trump had suggested that his chief of staff be the FBI director’s main point of contact in the White House, so Priebus had invited Comey over for what he described as a “meet and greet.” After some initial discussion of immigration issues, intelligence gathering and leaks, Priebus steered the conversation to Flynn.

“Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?” Priebus asked, referring to a top-secret warrant to wiretap an American citizen suspected of being a spy for a foreign government.

It was highly unusual for a White House chief of staff to ask the FBI director such a question. But Comey agreed to answer and said there wasn’t a FISA warrant on Flynn.

A few hours later Flynn had a meeting with a Washington Post reporter. At the end of their discussion on a variety of foreign policy issues, the reporter asked Flynn if he was sure he didn’t discuss sanctions with Kislyak during their Dec. 29 call.


Despite denials, the Post had learned from multiple administration officials that Flynn had raised the topic on the call.

Although he had told Trump in the Oval Office that he might have, Flynn again repeated the answer he’d given multiple times: he was sure sanctions weren’t discussed. The reporter asked if that could be on the record, and Michael Anton, the NSC’s spokesperson, agreed.

Around 10 p.m., however, Flynn called Anton to ask the status of the Post’s story. Changing his story once again, Flynn told Anton he could no longer say with 100 percent confidence that he didn’t discuss sanctions with Kislyak. Anton called the Post reporter with a new statement — and unsuccessfully asked the paper not to report that Flynn had said just hours earlier that sanctions weren’t discussed.

The new statement that Flynn “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up” was carefully worded but marked a sea change. Neither Flynn nor Anton told other senior officials about the new statement.

Feb. 9 to Feb. 10, 2017

At 9:30 p.m. on Feb. 9, the Post published its article. It immediately set off a firestorm inside and outside the White House. Nearly everyone in the West Wing was blindsided.

“We went bananas,” said a senior White House official who was there at the time.

Only then did McGahn, whom Trump had tasked with looking into Flynn’s conduct, decide to refocus on the issue.

Priebus was having dinner with the president in the White House residence when McGahn, who still had not read the transcripts of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak, urgently asked him to leave the dinner to discuss the Post article. Priebus was fuming. They summoned Flynn from the national security adviser’s suite, and a handful of senior White House officials, including White House counsel, deposed him in Priebus’ office.

“What the f— is going on?” Priebus asked Flynn.

Flynn responded that he now wasn’t completely sure if sanctions had come up in the Kislyak call.

“Well, you told me that didn’t happen, so which is it?” Priebus said to Flynn, who responded again that he was unsure.

Around 6:20 the following morning, Pence’s aide, Marc Lotter walked over to the West Wing to see Anton.

“We have a problem,” he said, adding that Flynn had “essentially made the Vice President of the United States a liar” by telling him he hadn’t discussed sanctions with Kislyak – a lie Pence then repeated in a nationally televised interview. Pence wanted to read the transcripts of Flynn’s Kislyak calls.

When David Ignatius of the Washington Post first reported that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak the day the Obama administration’s sanctions were announced, Flynn directed his deputy, KT McFarland, to call the columnist and say that he and the Russian ambassador did not discuss sanctions during the call.

“I want to kill the story,” Flynn told McFarland.

After McFarland spoke with the columnist, the Post updated his article with an anonymous Trump official saying Flynn and Kislyak did not discuss sanctions.

Pence knew he’d be asked about it during an interview the following Sunday on CBS, and he wanted to hear Flynn’s explanation directly. He called the incoming national security adviser, who told the vice president-elect that the topic of sanctions never came up. And that’s what Pence said on national television.

It was almost a month after Flynn told Pence he hadn’t discussed sanctions with Kislyak that Pence wanted to compare his conversation with Flynn to the ones Flynn had with Kislyak.

McCabe had been at the White House for an unrelated briefing that morning. When he got to his car outside the West Wing, his driver told him the White House had been frantically trying to reach him.

He connected by phone with Priebus who said the Vice President wanted to see the transcripts — now. McCabe said he’d have to get them.

“Where’s your office?” Priebus asked.

McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, explained that he worked out of FBI headquarters.

The transcripts of Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak were brought to the White House in a secure briefcase, just as they were eight days earlier.

Pence, his chief of staff Nick Ayers, Priebus and McGahn huddled in a conference room in the Situation Room suite reading the transcripts. McCabe remained in the room and at one point was asked whether Flynn had violated the Logan Act. He told the group that was a possibility that the FBI was investigating.

Pence asked Ayers to get him a printed copy of his CBS interview. After Ayers returned with it, Pence compared the transcript of his interview with the transcripts of Flynn and Kislyak.

He barely spoke as he read through the documents line by line.

“Number one, what I would ask you guys to do – and make sure this, make sure that you convey this, okay?” the transcript showed Flynn said to Kislyak during their Dec. 29 call – the day the Obama administration announced the Russia sanctions – “do not uh, allow this administration to box us in, right now, okay?”

“I know you have to have some sort of action,” Flynn continued. “Make it reciprocal. … Don’t go any further than you have to. Because I don’t want us to get into something that has to escalate.”

Kislyak explained that one of the problems Moscow had is in addition to expelling Russian diplomats from the U.S., the Obama administration just sanctioned key Russian intelligence entities.

“So that’s something that we have to deal with,” Kislyak said to Flynn. “But I’ve heard what you say, and I certainly will try to get the people in Moscow to understand it.”

Flynn made the case that “we need cool heads to prevail.”

Pence compared that to the transcript of his response on CBS, when asked about Flynn’s Dec. 29 phone call with Kislyak.

“I talked to General Flynn about that conversation,” Pence said in the interview. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”

“So did they ever have a conversation about sanctions ever on those days or any other day?” Pence was asked.

“They did not,” the vice-president elect replied.

Pence read the transcript of a follow-up call between Flynn and Kislyak on Dec. 31, after Russia announced it would not retaliate for the sanctions.

“I have a small message to pass to you from Moscow,” Kislyak told Flynn.

“I appreciate the steps your president has taken. I think that it was wise,” Flynn interjected.

“I just wanted to tell you that our conversation was also taken into account in Moscow,” Kislyak said.

“Good,” said Flynn.

“Your proposal that we need to act with cold heads, uh, is exactly what is uh invested in the decision,” Kislyak added.

“Good,” Flynn said again.

In Pence’s interview on CBS, the transcript showed, he had dismissed the idea of more than one conversation between Flynn and Kislyak. “I don’t believe there were more conversations,” he said.

“He was smoldering,” one person in the room described Pence as he read the transcripts.

Priebus got up in the middle of the meeting, said he’d seen enough, and left the room.

Afterward, Pence was clear: The transcripts revealed that Flynn hadn’t been truthful. But Pence wanted to think about whether he’d advise the president to fire Flynn.

More than two weeks after Yates’ first warning about Flynn, McGahn, Priebus and Bannon had the first serious conversation with Trump about whether to fire the national security adviser. They told Trump they had reviewed the transcripts of Flynn’s call with Kislyak, and that it was clear he had lied to Pence.

Priebus, who early on thought Flynn had to go, was even more certain. Flynn either knowingly lied to the vice president — which Priebus and McGahn believed he had done — or he was too incompetent to serve as national security adviser if he couldn’t remember details like the topics of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. Neither, from their perspective, was acceptable. All three advisers recommended Trump fire Flynn.

The drama unfolded behind the scenes as Trump welcomed Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the White House for official meetings, followed by a weekend at his sprawling South Florida estate, Mar-a-Lago.

As national security adviser, Flynn had a high-profile role in Abe’s visit that day.

That afternoon Flynn joined Trump and senior White House officials on Air Force One for the flight to Florida and the weekend with Abe.

Trump wandered to the press cabin in the back of the plane while giving his wife a tour of the aircraft and told reporters he hadn’t seen the Post report on Flynn.

“I don’t know about that,” he said.

Feb. 11 to Feb. 12, 2017

“What’s he doing here?” Trump snapped to a friend when he saw Flynn that weekend at Mar-a-Lago.

The controversy over Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak showed no signs of waning. Yet Flynn felt confident he would weather the firestorm.

He played a role in the scramble that night on the outdoor terrace at Mar-a-Lago as the U.S. and Japanese delegations were dining, to craft a response to a North Korean missile test.

White House aide Stephen Miller was asked the following morning on the Sunday news shows whether Trump has confidence in Flynn, and he did not have an answer.

Meanwhile, Flynn was among those helping plan for Trump’s Monday meeting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the White House.

On the president’s flight back to Washington Sunday, Flynn was in the conference room on Air Force One leaning over an aide to go over some paperwork, his image splashed on a large flat-screen TV behind him showing news coverage about whether he’d be fired.

During the flight, Trump asked Flynn if he had lied to Pence. Flynn said he might have forgotten details of his conversations with Kislyak but he didn’t believe he had lied. “OK,” Trump said. “That’s fine. I got it.”

After landing at the military base in Maryland where Air Force One is kept, Flynn was among the handful of aides who joined the president on his helicopter for the flight back to White House.

Feb. 13, 2017

Trump was still unsure about whether Flynn should go.

“He was torn,” said a White House official who was involved in the discussions.

The White House plan was for Flynn to do TV interviews that day criticizing North Korea’s test launch. And Flynn juggled national security meetings throughout the morning, ducking out of lunch with Trudeau to deal with a hiccup in the rollout of a major escalation in U.S. sanctions on a top government official in Venezuela that the administration was about to announce.

In a parallel set of Monday morning meetings, Trump’s most senior aides were vigorously debating Flynn’s future.

McGahn, Priebus and Bannon shuttled back and forth between the Oval Office and the chief of staff’s suite. All three had advised firing Flynn.

But Trump’s view was that firing his national security adviser after just a few weeks would play into the hands of his critics. And he worried about how it would reflect on him.

“It’s going to make me look bad,” he told his advisers. “We’re going to look like a bunch of clowns.”

Spicer told reporters Trump was “evaluating the situation” and speaking with Pence and others about the issue.

One of the president’s top aides thought Trump was trying to shift the burden of deciding whether to fire Flynn onto Pence when he said: “Mike, he disappointed you. He let you down.” Flynn had apologized privately to Pence who wasn’t happy with him. Still, Pence told Trump he’d support whatever decision he made.

By the afternoon, Trump had concluded that Flynn had to go. He tasked Priebus with delivering the news. A resignation letter was prepared and Priebus delivered the news.

“Flynn said he wanted to take a shot at drafting the letter,” one senior White House official who was there at the time said. “But there was a draft given to him.”

Flynn asked to say goodbye to Trump, so Priebus brought him to the Oval Office for his last meeting as Trump’s national security adviser. “He didn’t see this coming,” the official said of Flynn.

Trump hugged his national security adviser of just 24 days and shook his hand. “We’ll give you a good recommendation,” the president told him. “You’re a good guy. We’ll take care of you.”

Publicly, the White House had been sending a different message. Kellyanne Conway, the president’s counselor, said in an afternoon TV interview that Trump had full confidence in Flynn.

McGahn, meanwhile, worked with the White House press office on drafting talking points on Flynn’s resignation that said the president had been advised Flynn was unlikely to be prosecuted for any crime, but that Flynn had lost the president’s trust.

Before the White House announced Flynn’s resignation, The Washington Post published a detailed account of Yates’ Jan. 26 warning about him to McGahn.

Once again, the White House press office was caught off guard. McGahn hadn’t told officials about the meeting, even after the initial report about Flynn discussing sanctions with Kislyak.

“You didn’t need to know,” McGhan told Spicer.

Spicer told reporters that Flynn’s departure was “not based on a legal issue but based on a trust issue.”

After Flynn

Trump seemed relieved during lunch at the White House with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a friend, and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser.

“Now that we fired Flynn, the Russia thing is over,” Trump told Christie. A former federal prosecutor, Christie laughed. “No way,” he said. “This thing is far from over.” And he warned Trump that Flynn would never go away, “like gum on the bottom of your shoe.”

Around 4 p.m., after a homeland security briefing, Trump asked Comey to stick around and kicked all the other officials out of the Oval Office, including the attorney general.

“I want to talk about Mike Flynn,” Trump said to Comey.

“He’s a good guy and has been through a lot,” Trump said, insisting Flynn didn’t do anything wrong in talking to the Russian ambassador but had to be fired for lying to Pence. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”

Trump never said publicly or privately that Flynn had lied to him. Just to Pence, and, in a tweet in December 2017, the FBI.

Comey interpreted the president’s words “letting this go” as a directive to stop investigating Flynn. At this point in the FBI’s investigation, no grand jury subpoenas had been issued.

Yet the president still seemed worried that Flynn’s legal troubles might ensnare him. Ten days after Flynn was fired, Trump ordered Priebus to have the deputy national security adviser write an internal email saying that Trump did not direct Flynn to call Kislyak to discuss sanctions.

The deputy, KT McFarland, was already uncertain about her own future. She had been asked to resign and told a possible ambassadorship to Singapore was on offer. But she wasn’t sure about the truthfulness of the claim the president wanted her to make.

She consulted the White House counsel’s office and Eisenberg advised her against writing the email. Priebus then later did the same, coming by her office to tell her not to write it and to forget he even mentioned it.

Trump then asked Priebus to call Flynn to check in and tell him the president still cared about him. Priebus did and added that Flynn is an American hero. And then the president asked McFarland to convey to Flynn he felt bad for him and he should stay strong.

On March 5, McGahn learned the FBI had asked the presidential transition team for documents relating to Flynn. The president told his aides he wanted Dana Boente, the acting attorney general in charge of the Russia investigation, to find out whether he or the White House was under investigation.

Concerned about what else might come out on Flynn and the Russia investigation generally, Priebus and Bannon set up a Russia “war room” inside the White House in May, in part to compile a thick file on Flynn that included detailed diagrams on whom he met with and what conflicts he might have had. The idea was to be prepared with responses before any damaging new stories emerged.

But the “war room” was disbanded soon after because, some officials believed, the White House response was increasingly handled by a very tight circle of aides as the Mueller investigation appeared to get closer to members of the president’s family.

Six months later, Flynn began cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. His lawyer informed the president’s legal team that he could no longer share information with him, a typical step for someone whose client has decided to cooperate with investigators.

Trump’s personal lawyer at the time, John Dowd, left a voicemail for Flynn’s lawyer on Nov. 22, 2017, saying if “any information that implicates the president” comes up, “we need some kind of heads up. Um, just for the sake of protecting all of our interests if we can.” He then added that Trump’s feelings about Flynn hadn’t changed.

Flynn’s lawyer returned the call to reiterate that he couldn’t share information anymore. Dowd said the decision indicated a hostility toward Trump and he’d be sure to relay that to the president. Flynn’s lawyer took Dowd’s comments as an attempt to get Flynn to reconsider cooperating.

Before Flynn’s plea agreement was publicly disclosed in December, Jared Kushner spoke with Mueller’s team about the two issues the former national security adviser pleaded guilty to lying about: the Kislyak calls and Trump transition officials’ efforts to derail an Obama administration policy on Israel.

Five days after Flynn pleaded guilty in a Virginia federal court to lying to the FBI, Trump called then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions into the Oval Office. Sessions had infuriated Trump by recusing himself because of his own contacts with Kislyak and his deep involvement in the Trump campaign. Trump suggested to Sessions that he “unrecuse” himself and take control of the Russia investigation.

“You’d be a hero,” the president said.

Mueller concluded that it would have been reasonable for Flynn to want Trump to know about his conversations with Kislyak, given that the ambassador had indicated to Flynn that his request for Moscow not to retaliate had been relayed went all the way to Putin.

The special counsel also noted that when Trump explained why he fired Flynn, he never said that Flynn had lied to him, just to Pence. Still, he wrote, “the evidence is inconclusive and could not be relied upon to establish the president’s knowledge.”

Pence was asked in Dec. 2017 if he knew Flynn had lied to the FBI at the time he was fired. “”What I can tell you is that I knew that he had lied to me,” Pence told CBS. “And I know the president made the right decision with regard to him.”

Flynn reaffirmed his guilty plea at his first sentencing hearing in December 2018, when Judge Sullivan rejected the Mueller team’s recommendation of probation.


Over the next 23 months, the alliance between Flynn and federal prosecutors frayed – and the Justice Department under the new leadership of Attorney General Barr intervened.

“There was a lot of pressure on the Justice Department,” one person close to the White House said.

Flynn requested to withdraw his guilty plea on Jan. 14, 2020 – almost three years to the day that Pence publicly assured the country that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak. . In response, federal prosecutors revised their sentencing recommendation to include a short jail sentence.

Several weeks later the prosecutors reversed that position to again say probation is an “appropriate” sentence, fueling speculation that pressure from the top levels of the Justice Department was weighing in on cases in which the president had a keen interest.

Unknown publicly at the time was that Barr was seeking an internal review of Flynn’s case, specifically his FBI interview. In February, Barr tasked a U.S. attorney in Missouri with investigating the circumstances surrounding the interview. That led to the Justice Department’s determination that Flynn’s case should be thrown out because “evidence is insufficient to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The request followed a public shift by Flynn that aligned more closely with the president’s narrative.

“When FBI agents came to the White House on January 24, 2017, I did not lie to them,” Flynn wrote in a court filing. “I believed I was honest with them to the best of my recollection at the time.”

Yet for officials who worked with Flynn in the White House at the time — who asked him repeatedly for weeks if he’d talked about sanctions with Kislyak and were told no — the mystery still lingers: why wasn’t he honest with them?

“The biggest question that’s never been answered is why didn’t he tell everyone in the West Wing that he talked to him about sanctions?” one official said. “Because no one would have cared if he did.”

Author: John Hanno

Born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. Bogan High School. Worked in Alaska after the earthquake. Joined U.S. Army at 17. Sergeant, B Battery, 3rd Battalion, 84th Artillery, 7th Army. Member of 12 different unions, including 4 different locals of the I.B.E.W. Worked for fortune 50, 100 and 200 companies as an industrial electrician, electrical/electronic technician.

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