In Flynn, Mueller unearths more lies and a key witness
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In Flynn, Mueller unearths more lies and a key witness

While ex-Trump aide’s guilty plea marks a major step in Russia probe, it still raises more questions than it answers on the possibility of collusion

Michael Flynn, former national security advisor to US President Donald Trump, leaves following his plea hearing at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse December 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)
Michael Flynn, former national security advisor to US President Donald Trump, leaves following his plea hearing at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse December 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — More smoke but no smoking gun.

Michael Flynn’s guilty plea Friday revealed a new layer of lies unearthed by the far-reaching investigation into ties between US President Donald Trump and Russia, and put heightened scrutiny on the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. But Flynn’s admission, and all of the criminal cases thus far, have not resolved the fundamental question special counsel Robert Mueller is seeking to answer:

Did Trump’s campaign collude with Russia to win the election?

Trump himself was eager to settle that question as he offered his first public response to Flynn’s plea, saying Saturday: “What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion. There’s been absolutely no collusion.”

But Mueller has left no doubt that his investigators have amassed a wealth of knowledge about the contacts between Trump associates and the Russians, and they’re looking to gather more facts from Flynn, a new key cooperator.

By forcing Flynn’s assistance, Mueller gains someone who can put him in the room with Trump and his closest advisers during the campaign, transition and the early days of the administration, times when Trump associates have acknowledged communicating with people connected to Russia.

This file photo taken on January 31, 2017 shows then national security adviser General Mike Flynn (L), Senior Advisor Jared Kushner (2L) and US President Donald Trump (R) at the beginning of a meeting on cyber security at the White House. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)flynn

In the hours after Flynn admitted lying about his contacts with a Russian government official , two names surfaced as integral players in his actions.

Kushner was identified as a “very senior” transition official, who directed Flynn to contact foreign governments, including Russia, about a UN Security Council resolution last December. And KT McFarland, who served as Flynn’s deputy national security adviser, was a “senior” transition official involved in discussions with Flynn about what to relay to Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the US, about the response to US sanctions levied by the Obama administration.

Kushner and McFarland weren’t named in court papers. But McFarland’s involvement was confirmed by two former transition officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter. One of the officials confirmed Kushner’s involvement.

In this file photo from March 29, 2017, then-deputy national security adviser KT McFarland speaks at an event at the White House. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Flynn became the fourth person known to have been charged in Mueller’s probe and the second, after former campaign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, to cooperate with investigators.

For both Flynn and Papadopoulos, prosecutors employed a similar, and textbook, strategy by accepting a limited guilty plea and turning the defendants into government cooperators. Papadopoulos and Flynn both pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their foreign contacts but not for their underlying conduct.

Still, Flynn’s plea to a single felony count of false statements made him the first official of the Trump White House to admit guilt so far in Mueller’s criminal investigation as court papers made clear that senior Trump officials were aware of his outreach to Russian officials in the weeks before the inauguration.

That revelation moved the Russia investigation, which has overshadowed Trump’s agenda throughout the year, deeper into the White House and raised questions about the accuracy of administration assertions that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about his calls with Kislyak.

Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US, speaks with reporters at the Center for the National Interest in Washington, September 6, 2013. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Though prosecutors also had investigated Flynn’s lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government, the fact he pleaded guilty to just one count, and faces only up to six months in prison, suggests prosecutors see him as a valuable tool and are granting a degree of leniency in exchange for his sharing what he knows.

Flynn, a 58-year-old retired US Army lieutenant general , accepted responsibility for his actions in a written statement: “My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country.”

Immediately after Flynn’s plea, White House lawyer Ty Cobb sought to put distance between Trump and the ex-aide, saying, “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”

Trump grew close to Flynn during the campaign. The general was a vocal and reliable Trump surrogate, known for leading crowds in “Lock her up” chants regarding Democrat Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. After his election victory, Trump elevated Flynn as his top national security adviser.

This file photo taken on October 17, 2016, shows Donald Trump (L) and Michael Flynn at a rally at a campaign rally in Grand Junction, Colorado. (AFP Photo/Getty Images North America/George Frey)

But Flynn’s White House tenure was short-lived. He was forced to resign in February following news reports revealing that the Obama administration officials had informed the Trump White House that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, a fact at odds with the public assertions of Pence. The officials warned that the discrepancy made the administration potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

After Flynn’s departure from the White House, Trump retained a special interest in his former adviser. Former FBI director James Comey, whose firing in May precipitated the appointment of Mueller as special counsel, has said Trump asked him in a private Oval Office meeting to consider ending the investigation into Flynn. Comey has said he found the encounter so shocking that he prepared an internal memo about it.

That FBI investigation was the basis of the court case against Flynn, centering on a series of conversations that Flynn had with Kislyak during the transition period between the November election and the Jan. 20 inauguration.

Prosecutors say Flynn on December 29 spoke with the senior transition team official, later identified as McFarland, about what, if anything, to tell the Russians about sanctions that had been imposed one day earlier by the Obama administration in retaliation for election interference. At the time, McFarland was with Trump and other senior advisers at Mar-A-Lago in Florida.

A handout photo made available by the Russian Foreign Ministry on May 10, 2017 shows US President Donald J. Trump (C) speaking with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and Russian Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak during a meeting at the White House in Washington, DC. (HO / RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY / AFP)

After the discussion with McFarland, Flynn called the Russian ambassador and requested that Russia “not escalate the situation” and respond “in a reciprocal manner,” a conversation prosecutors say he then reported back to transition team members. Just days later, Vladimir Putin opted not to retaliate.

Another conversation with Kislyak occurred one week earlier after a “very senior member” of the presidential transition team, later revealed to be Kushner, directed Flynn to contact foreign government officials, including from Russia, about a UN Security Council resolution regarding Israeli settlements.

In a striking rupture with past practice, the Obama administration refrained from vetoing the condemnation of the settlement expansion, opting instead to abstain. The rest of the 15-nation council, including Russia, voted unanimously against Israel. At the time, Israel was lobbying furiously against the resolution and the Trump team spoke up on behalf of the Jewish state.

Former US officials and foreign diplomats have said Kushner led the transition effort to defeat that UN vote.

During his conversation with Kislyak, prosecutors say, Flynn requested that Russia vote against or delay the resolution, though he admitted in his plea deal that he later lied to the FBI by saying he had not made that request.

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