Donald Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday, December 1, 2017 to lying to the F.B.I. regarding his previous contacts with the Russian ambassador. Though Mueller indicted Flynn for his contacts with Russia during the transition, Flynn’s history of foreign ties long predates Trump’s presidential run.
In 2013, while Flynn was the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, he took a delegation to Moscow “to speak to a group of officers from the G.R.U., Russia’s intelligence agency, about leadership development.” Although the C.I.A.’s chief of Russia operations at the time voiced concerns and skepticism about this controversial trip, Flynn told The Washington Post that he had a “great trip,” even bragging about being “the first U.S. officer ever allowed inside the headquarters of the G.R.U.” Flynn tried to go back for a second trip and invited G.R.U. officers to come to the U.S., but “permission was denied.”
In February 2014, six months before the Obama administration fired Flynn, he traveled to Cambridge University as the head of D.I.A. to speak at the Cambridge Intelligence Seminar, an organization that last year was hit with allegations of being open to “unacceptable Russian influence,” leading a group of intelligence experts—including the former head of MI-6—to cut ties with the group. He also met with a Russian-British national Svetlana Lokhova and he subsequently remained in email contact with Lokhova, an “expert on Soviet intelligence in the 1930s.” The Wall Street Journal reported that, according to U.S. intelligence rules, Flynn should have disclosed his interactions with Lokhova, but he failed to do so. (As the Guardian has reported, “there is no suggestion that Lokhova has ever worked with or for any of the Russian intelligence agencies.”)
These events did not escape the notice of the U.S. intelligence community, which increasingly grew wary of Flynn’s foreign contacts. The Guardian reported that “multiple sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the C.I.A. and F.B.I. were discussing this episode, along with many others, as they assessed Flynn’s suitability to serve as national security adviser.” Flynn was reportedly bitter and angry when he was eventually pushed out of the D.I.A. in August 2014. He subsequently became a contributor to RT, where he “often [argued] that the U.S. and Russia should be working more closely together on issues like fighting ISIL and ending Syria’s civil war.”
Just a few months before he began advising Donald Trump on his presidential campaign, Flynn was paid “approximately forty thousand dollars” to give a talk at an RT Gala, where he a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his chief of staff, Sergei Ivanov. Viktor Vekselberg, who later came under scrutiny for his ties to Wilbur Ross, also attended the event, along with future Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. Julian Assange appeared at the gala via videotape. Flynn reportedly accepted money from other Russian companies as well, including $11,250 for a speaking engagement for Kaspersky Lab, a Russian cybersecurity company with alleged ties to the Kremlin (the company has denied these ties.)
Flynn has also developed a relationship with the Turkish government. In 2015 and 2016, the Flynn Intel Group, which Flynn established after leaving the D.I.A., was hired to lobby on behalf of Turkish interests by Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman with close ties to Kremlin-connected former energy executive Dmitri ‘David’ Zaikin (Zaikin has denied knowing Alptekin and denied any involvement in Flynn’s Turkish lobbying efforts.) Alptekin has denied that Flynn’s work for him had anything to do with the Turkish government, and has denied any wrongdoing in this matter. Flynn’s lobbying on behalf of Turkey represented a reversal; although he had previously criticized Erdoğan, he wrote an op-ed the day of the 2016 election for The Hill that hailed Turkey as the U.S.’ “strongest ally” against ISIS. Flynn’s pro-Turkish views soon translated into policy implementation, as he later “[blocked] the [U.S.’] plan to arm the Syrian Kurds” as part of the United States’ efforts to combat ISIS. This plan had encountered heavy opposition from the Turkish government, which has been in a conflict with Kurds for decades (it was only after Flynn’s dismissal that the Trump administration took steps to arm the Kurds.) Flynn’s opposition raised questions about whether his lobbying work was affecting his policy decisions, and whether he was “acting on behalf of a foreign nation.”
Flynn first met Trump in August 2015, and soon became an active participant in the Trump campaign. In February 2016, Flynn began advising Trump on ”a range of issues,” including foreign policy and national security. As a Trump transition team member, Flynn had numerous contacts with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak; some of these contacts are what he eventually lied to the FBI about, leading to his indictment. In December 2016, Kushner and Flynn met with Kislyak in Trump Tower, reportedly discussing the possibility of establishing back-channel communications between the White House and the Kremlin. On December 29, 2016, Flynn called Kislyak five times to discuss the sanctions the Obama administration had recently implemented against Russia.
Despite the red flags surrounding Flynn, his role within the Trump team only continued to grow. President Obama warned Trump about hiring Flynn as National Security Advisor in November 2016, and Flynn himself disclosed to the Trump transition team that he was under federal investigation due to his previous work lobbying for Turkish interests in January 2017. Nonetheless, he was soon sworn in as a national security adviser in late January 2017. During his short tenure, he worked to push a “Middle East Marshall Plan” to build civilian nuclear power plants with Russia throughout the Middle East, which would have “required lifting sanctions on Russia.”
Four days after Trump’s inauguration, the FBI interviewed Flynn about his calls with Kislyak. After hearing a readout of Flynn’s interview with the F.B.I., then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates and another senior D.O.J. official warned White House counsel Don McGahn in January 2017 that Flynn’s denial of discussions of sanctions with Kislyak may have been misleading, and that Flynn’s comments made him “vulnerable to Russian blackmail.” On February 13, 2017, Kellyanne Conway said “General Flynn does enjoy the full confidence of the president.” Subsequently, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that Trump was “evaluating the situation” around Flynn. Later that evening, Flynn resigned as national security advisor. Flynn only held the job for a total of 24 days.
In March 2017, Flynn retroactively registered as a foreign agent for his work on behalf of Turkish interests during the 2016 presidential campaign. Trump later pressured F.B.I. Director Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn. As the seriousness of his situation came into focus, Flynn reportedly offered to be interviewed by the F.B.I. and congressional committees in exchange for full immunity from prosecution in late March 2017; his request for immunity was later denied. On December 1, 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the F.B.I. on January 24, 2017, about his conversations with the Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the transition period. After appearing in court, Flynn signed a plea agreement indicating his cooperation with Mueller.
On December 4, 2018 the Special Counsel’s office filed a sentencing memo for Flynn, recommending that he receive no jail time given his “substantial assistance” with the investigation.