A file photo of former FBI director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill in Washington.  Photo: AP
A file photo of former FBI director Robert Mueller, the special counsel probing Russian interference in the 2016 election, departs Capitol Hill in Washington. Photo: AP

Robert Mueller closes in on White House with Michael Flynn’s guilty plea

Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving into the actions of Donald Trump's inner circle before he took office

New York: Special Counsel Robert Mueller plowed into the center of Donald Trump’s administration, securing a guilty plea from Trump’s first national security adviser and placing markers on two other advisers, including the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Michael Flynn admitted he lied to FBI agents in January about conversations he’d had with Russia’s ambassador to the US. But he testified on Friday that he had fully informed members of Trump’s transition team about the communications, and had been guided by them.

In court, Flynn explained what really happened. In late December, as Trump prepared to enter the White House, a “very senior member" of his transition team urged Flynn to seek Russia’s support on a United Nations security matter. Flynn then asked Russia’s US ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, to help delay or defeat a UN security council vote involving Israeli settlements. The senior transition member was Kushner, two people familiar with the matter said on Friday.

About a week after the UN matter, Kislyak reached out to Flynn when the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia for election meddling. Flynn called a senior transition team official at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. Afterward, he asked Kislyak to moderate Russia’s response, and told the Trump camp what he’d done. Russia soon dialled back its response.

K.T. McFarland was the person at Mar-a-Lago, according to two people familiar with the matter. Flynn had brought McFarland to the transition and White House. She was deputy national security adviser until April and is now Trump’s nominee to serve as US ambassador to Singapore.

A spokesman for Kushner referred questions to his lawyer, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. McFarland couldn’t immediately be reached.

“This shows a Trump associate negotiating with the Russians against US policy and interests before Donald Trump took office and after it was announced that Russia had interfered in our election," Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, said in a statement, adding that it’s critical to find out “who knew and approved of his actions."

The Flynn plea is a major step for Mueller’s quickly advancing investigation. Mueller has already charged Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy over their earlier business activities, and secured a guilty plea from George Papadopoulos, a campaign adviser who pursued Russia’s help during last year’s election. Papadopoulos is cooperating with the probe.

The dollar plunged along with stocks after ABC News reported that Flynn would testify that Trump directed him to make contact with the Russians. Treasuries, often viewed as the safest of investments, rallied.

Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington, on 1 December 2017. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Photo: AP
Former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn leaves federal court in Washington, on 1 December 2017. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI. Photo: AP

Flynn, in a statement, said he accepts full responsibility for his actions. “It has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of ‘treason’ and other outrageous acts. Such false accusations are contrary to everything I have ever done and stood for," he said.

Ty Cobb, a lawyer for Trump’s White House, pushed back on Flynn’s claims. “The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn," Cobb said.

In cooperating with Mueller’s inquiry, Flynn is seeking leniency for himself and possibly his son, who worked with him in his private business. The charge doesn’t delve into Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkey, which is also under investigation, or his failure to promptly disclose such work to US authorities. At the hearing, Flynn admitted to lying about contacts with Turkey.

In admitting to false statements, he faced a maximum of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine, but is likely to get no more than six months and $9,500 under his plea agreement.

The FBI interviewed Flynn on 24 January, the first week of Trump’s administration. A few days later, the Justice Department warned the White House that Flynn could be subjected to blackmail because his dealings with Russians hadn’t been disclosed, the Washington Post has reported.

Flynn was forced to resign on 13 February, less than a month into Trump’s term. He was accused of misleading vice president Mike Pence —who had led the transition -- about his conversations with Kislyak.

The next day, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey to drop the probe into Flynn, Comey has testified. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go," Comey said the president had asked. Even after Flynn’s firing, Trump defended him publicly, calling him a “very good person" who had done nothing wrong.

The FBI’s investigation of Flynn gave rise to the creation of a special counsel to oversee the wider Russia probe: Comey testified that after he refused to drop the investigation, he was fired. Soon after, Mueller was appointed as special counsel.

The charge against Flynn casts a renewed spotlight on Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions recused himself from any investigation into Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 election after Democratic lawmakers accused him of lying to Congress about his own conversations with Russian officials.

Foreign payments

After he left the administration, Flynn filed an updated foreign registration form showing that he hadn’t disclosed multiple contacts and payments from foreign entities while serving as a campaign adviser to Trump starting in February 2016.

At the time, Flynn, a retired Army general, ran a consulting business called Flynn Intel Group. In one case, Flynn’s company received $530,000 from Inovo BV, a Dutch company working on behalf of Turkey’s government, to lobby the US for extradition of a dissident cleric who has opposed President Recep Erdogan of Turkey.

He’s also disclosed payments from RT, described in an unclassified US intelligence report as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet," and Kaspersky Government Security, a cybersecurity business that U.S. authorities say works closely with Russia’s main intelligence agency, the FSB.

Flynn rose to the top of the military’s intelligence apparatus during a 33-year career notable for both his battlefield successes and his breaches of the Pentagon’s chain-of-command.

Flynn’s military service stretched from the 1983 Grenada invasion, where he was a platoon leader, to stints as director of intelligence for the US Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the International Security Assistance Force. He retired in 2014 after Obama fired him as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Afterward, Flynn started a private lobbying and consulting practice that did business in foreign countries including Russia and Turkey. Flynn didn’t disclose those contacts and payments, as required, when applying for his security clearance to work in the Trump White House.

Top House Democrats have pointed out that Flynn failed to disclose a 2015 Middle East business trip tied to a plan to build nuclear plants in the region using money from Saudi and Russian investors. The Democrats called the omission a crime.

Flynn’s son, Michael Flynn Jr., also worked for the consulting firm and is under investigation by the special counsel. The son gained attention during the 2016 president election for promoting conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton on social media. Bloomberg

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