WASHINGTON — Former U.S. national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russia and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving deeper into the actions of President Donald Trump’s inner circle before he took office in January.
Flynn became the first member of Trump’s administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by the wide-ranging special counsel investigation into Russia’s alleged attempts to influence the election and potential collusion by Trump aides.
Flynn, a former senior member of Trump’s campaign team, admitted in courtroom in downtown Washington that he gave false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation in January about his contacts the previous month with Russia’s then-ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.
ABC News said Flynn, facing up to five years in jail, was prepared to testify that before taking office Trump had directed him to make contact with Russians.
Reuters could not immediately verify the ABC News report on Flynn testifying, which could put the Republican president in an uncomfortable spot after he has denied any collusion between himself or his campaign team with Moscow.
U.S. stocks, the dollar and Treasury yields fell sharply after the ABC report, although they partially rebounded after U.S. Senate Republicans said they had enough support to pass a tax overhaul bill later in the day.
Flynn’s decision to take a plea deal and cooperate with the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller marked a major escalation in a probe that has dogged Trump’s administration since the Republican president took office.
The White House said Flynn’s guilty plea implicated him alone.
“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn,” Ty Cobb, a White House attorney, said in a statement.
Flynn was forced out of his White House post in February for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador last December, after Trump’s November election win and before the Jan. 20 inauguration.
Flynn and Trump
ABC News cited a confidant as saying Flynn was ready to testify that Trump directed him to make contact with Russians before he became president, initially as a way to work together to fight the Islamic State group in Syria.
If Trump directed Flynn to contact Russian officials, that might not necessarily amount to a crime. It would be a crime if it were proven that Trump directed Flynn to lie to the FBI about his contacts to the FBI.
Legal experts disagree over whether a sitting president can be indicted. Many say the only clear punishment for a president who has committed criminal acts is impeachment by Congress. The Constitution provides that impeachment, which requires a simple majority in the House and a two-thirds vote in the Senate, is warranted for “high crimes and misdemeanors,” which Congress is free to define as it sees fit.
Moscow has denied what U.S. intelligence agencies say was meddling in the election campaign to try to sway the vote in Trump’s favor. Trump has called Mueller’s probe a witch hunt.
In May, the president fired FBI Director James Comey, who later accused Trump of trying to hinder the agency’s investigations into the Russia allegations. Comey also said he believed Trump had asked him to drop the FBI’s probe into Flynn.
Comey on Friday tweeted a cryptic message about justice, but did not specifically mention the Flynn plea.
“But let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, ‘Amos 5:24’,” he wrote, quoting the Biblical book of Amos.
Prosecutors said that Flynn and Kislyak last December discussed economic sanctions that Washington had imposed on Moscow, and an upcoming vote in the U.N. Security Council regarded as damaging to Israel.
Flynn admitted later falsely telling FBI officials that he did not ask the ambassador to refrain from escalating a diplomatic dispute over the sanctions.
President Barack Obama’s administration, which was still in office at the time, had imposed the sanctions for allegedly interfering in the election.
Flynn consulted with a senior member of Trump’s presidential transition team about “what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about the U.S. sanctions,” prosecutors said in a court document.
Flynn called a senior official of Trump’s transition team who was with other members of the team at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, the prosecutors said,
”Flynn called the Russian ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. sanctions in a reciprocal manner,” the document said. It did not name the senior official in the Trump team.
On Dec. 28, 2016, the day before prosecutors say the call between the Trump aides took place, Trump publicly played down the need to sanction Russia for allegedly hacking U.S. Democratic operatives.
“I think we ought to get on with our lives. I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly,” Trump told reporters at Mar-a-Lago.
Flynn also admitted to lying about asking the envoy to help delay a vote in the U. N. Security Council that was seen as damaging to Israel.
The document said a very senior official in the Trump team told Flynn to contact foreign governments, including Russia, to try to influence their vote.
An official who worked with Trump’s transition team confirmed media reports that Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was the official involved. Kushner’s lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the issue.
Flynn pleaded guilty in a packed federal courtroom in Washington. “Guilty, your honor,” he said, when asked by U.S. District Judge Rudolph Contreras how he planned to plea.
Flynn was known for vitriolic campaign appearances in 2016, notably leading Trump supporters’ chants of “Lock Her Up,” in reference to Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, and accusations she misused email while she was secretary of state.
He is the second former senior aide to Trump to be charged in the Mueller probe.
Paul Manafort, who ran Trump’s presidential campaign for several months last year, was charged in October with conspiring to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as a foreign agent of Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government.
Manafort, who did not join Trump’s administration, and a business associate who was charged with him, pleaded not guilty.