WASHINGTON (WASHINGTON POST) - Special counsel Robert Mueller on Tuesday (Dec 4) recommended that former national security adviser Michael Flynn serves no prison time, citing his “substantial assistance” with several ongoing investigations, according to a new court filing.
Flynn was forced out of his post as national security adviser in February 2017 after the White House said he misled administration officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence, about his contacts with Mr Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States at the time.
Since then, Flynn has been cooperating with Mr Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign, and his full account of events has been one of the best-kept secrets in Washington.
He is one of five Donald Trump aides who have pleaded guilty in the special counsel's probe.
The special counsel’s new filing on Tuesday is the first time prosecutors have described Flynn’s assistance since the former national security adviser’s guilty plea in December 2017.
In it, prosecutors said Flynn has assisted with several ongoing investigations – participating in 19 interviews with federal prosecutors.
Tuesday’s filing is heavily redacted, continuing to shroud in secrecy the details of what Flynn told Mr Mueller’s team about his interactions with Mr Trump and other top officials.
But the document noted that Flynn has assisted the special counsel with its “investigation concerning links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign”.
Flynn pleaded guilty to one felony count of making a false statement, despite a longer list of charges he could have faced.
Prosecutors said last year they would likely seek a prison sentence between zero and six months.
The generous terms offered by the special counsel indicate that Flynn’s cooperation is viewed as highly useful to Mr Mueller’s investigation, legal experts said.
As part of his investigation, Mr Mueller has been working to determine whether any of Mr Trump’s allies coordinated with Russia or sought help for his campaign.
Prosecutors have sought to learn whether Mr Trump urged Flynn’s outreach to the Russian ambassador to signal that the new White House team would go easy on the Russian government.
During the presidential transition, Flynn had several contacts with Mr Kislyak.
In early December 2016, he attended a meeting at Trump Tower in New York, during which Mr Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner proposed to the Russian ambassador the setting up of a secret communications channel with the Kremlin, according to people briefed on intelligence reports.
Later in the month, Flynn spoke with Mr Kislyak about US sanctions on Russia and other topics, Flynn admitted in his plea last year.
He also told prosecutors that he was in touch with senior Trump transition officials before and after his communications with the ambassador.
In his plea agreement, Flynn said he contacted the Russian ambassador on Dec 22, 2016, about the incoming administration’s opposition to a UN resolution condemning Israeli settlements as illegal and requested that Russia vote against or delay it.
Mr Kislyak called back a day later to say that Russia would not vote against the resolution, court records show.
In another conversation, on Dec 29, Flynn called Mr Kislyak to suggest that the incoming president was not a fan of the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration and asked Russia not to escalate the ongoing feud, according to filings.
Russian President Vladimir Putin issued a statement on Dec 30 saying Russia would not retaliate against the US sanctions at that time.
The following day, the ambassador called Flynn to inform him of Russia’s decision to honour his request, according to the records.
Flynn admitted he had lied to the FBI about his interactions with the ambassador when they interviewed him just four days after the inauguration, but also asserted that others in Mr Trump’s transition team knew about his talks with Mr Kislyak, according to court filings.
He told prosecutors that a “very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” had directed him to contact officials from foreign governments, including Russia, about the UN resolution on Israel.
That official is also not named, but people familiar with the matter have said it refers to Mr Kushner.
According to one transition team official, Mr Trump’s son-in-law told Flynn that blocking the resolution was a top priority of the president-elect.
Flynn also admitted that before speaking with the ambassador on Dec 29, he called a senior transition official at the Mar-a-Lago resort, where Mr Trump was staying, “to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about the US sanctions”.
Flynn learnt that transition members did not want Russia to escalate the situation, according to court papers.
The senior transition official is not identified in records, but people familiar with the matter identified the official as Ms K. T. McFarland, a one-time Flynn deputy.
Ms McFarland, who initially denied to FBI ever talking to Flynn about sanctions in the call, subsequently revised her statement and told investigators they may have discussed sanctions, The Washington Post previously reported.
Two major questions were left unanswered by Flynn’s 2017 guilty plea: Whether Mr Trump instructed Flynn to call the ambassador and why Flynn lied about the contacts in the first place.
When Flynn pleaded guilty, then-White House lawyer Ty Cobb said the national security adviser’s lies had nothing to do with the president.
“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr Flynn,” Mr Cobb said.
Mr Trump has repeatedly said he did not urge Flynn to call or discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
“No,” he told reporters in a February 2017 news conference when asked whether he directed the call. “I didn’t.”
Mr Trump said then that he was troubled that Flynn failed to tell Mr Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador, but not by the interactions themselves.
“It certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it,” Mr Trump told reporters. “I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him because that’s his job.”
Flynn’s lie to FBI agents on Jan 24, 2017, about his contacts with the Russian diplomat set in motion one of the biggest tumults of Mr Trump’s presidency.
It stunned senior Justice Department officials, who felt they had to warn the White House.
The aftershocks still shadow Mr Trump’s administration. Two days later, then-acting Attorney-General Sally Yates visited the White House to alert White House Counsel Donald McGahn about Flynn’s dishonesty.
Mr McGahn immediately told Mr Trump, who expressed surprise that the Justice Department was criticising his choice of advisers just days after he took office.
Mr Trump didn’t act to correct Flynn’s account or remove him until Feb 9, when The Washington Post revealed Flynn had talked to Mr Kislyak about sanctions and lied about it.
Flynn resigned on Feb 13, just 24 days in his position, the shortest tenure of a national security adviser on record.
A few days later, Mr Trump hosted then-FBI Director James Comey for a dinner, where Mr Comey said that Mr Trump stunned him by asking him to show lenience in investigating Flynn.
According to Mr Comey’s later testimony, Mr Trump told the FBI director that Flynn was a good man and said: “I hope you can let this go.”
Mr Trump has said he does not recall saying that to Mr Comey. Mr Trump’s discussion with Mr Comey became another subject of Mr Mueller’s inquiry: Examining whether Mr Trump had sought to obstruct the probe of his campaign’s contacts with Russia.
Mr Mueller will have an opportunity to lay out additional pieces of the evidence he has been gathering later this week.
On Friday, prosecutors with the special counsel’s office are scheduled to file a letter to the judge who sentences Michael Cohen, the president’s former attorney.
The letter will outline additional details of Cohen’s cooperation with Mr Mueller’s office.
Also on Friday, Mr Mueller’s team will submit a filing to a judge in Washington describing ways that Mr Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort lied to prosecutors after pleading guilty in September and promising to cooperate.
Prosecutors have said that Manafort breached his agreement by continuing to be dishonest in meetings with prosecutors.