WASHINGTON • Mr Donald Trump may find himself in hot water after tweeting that he had sacked his national security adviser for lying to federal agents and the Vice-President, raising the question of whether the United States President is obstructing justice, which could spell impeachment.
Mr Trump has long asserted that he fired Michael Flynn in February because Flynn had lied to Vice-President Mike Pence over whether he had talked with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about sanctions imposed on Russia by former president Barack Obama.
Flynn, a 58-year-old retired three-star army general, is the most senior figure indicted in special prosecutor Robert Mueller's sprawling investigation into Russian interference in last year's election.
He told Mr Mueller that he communicated with Mr Kislyak during the presidential transition last December about American foreign policy with the knowledge and direction of senior Trump associates, according to a court document.
The contacts with Russia could violate the Logan Act of 1799, which prohibits US citizens from interfering with relations between the US and foreign governments, said Senator Dianne Feinstein of California, the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
By tweeting last Saturday that Flynn's lies to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had contributed to his firing, some took that to mean the President was acknowledging he had known in February that Flynn was untruthful with FBI agents. Any such admission would be important in the light of Mr Trump's effort that month to persuade the FBI director at the time, Mr James Comey, to drop the investigation into Flynn.
But White House officials said Mr Trump was merely acknowledging what had happened the day before: Flynn's guilty plea for lying to the FBI about his conversations with Mr Kislyak.
Who's who in saga
Special counsel Robert Mueller
The 73-year-old former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director was appointed by the United States Department of Justice in May to lead the investigation into Russia's interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
"If he believes somebody has committed a crime, he's going to do whatever he can to hold them accountable," a former FBI colleague told the Los Angeles Times, adding that Mr Mueller would not back down because of US President Donald Trump's "name or brand".
Ex-US national security adviser Michael Flynn
A retired US Army lieutenant-general, Flynn lasted just 24 days as Mr Trump's national security adviser, resigning in February over reports that he had misled administration officials over the nature of his contacts with Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak.
The 58-year-old was charged last Friday with lying to the FBI about his conversations last December with Mr Kislyak, becoming the first Trump administration official to face charges in Mr Mueller's investigation.
Ex-Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak
The 66-year-old diplomat is at the centre of allegations that Russia interfered in last year's election.
His many meetings with the campaign team and Mr Trump's transition team are the subject of several congressional, US Justice Department and FBI investigations. A nuclear physicist by training, Mr Kislyak ended his nine-year term as ambassador to the US in July and returned to Moscow.
Sacked FBI director James Comey
Sacked by Mr Trump in May, Mr Comey, 56, later accused the US President of trying to hinder the FBI's investigations. He also said he believed Mr Trump had asked him to drop the FBI's probe into Flynn.
After news of Flynn's guilty plea last Friday, Mr Comey tweeted a cryptic message about justice, but did not specifically mention Flynn, reported Reuters. " '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.
While Mr Trump's tweet raised questions about what he knew, he did not actually write it, according to two people briefed on the matter. It was composed by his top personal lawyer, Mr John Dowd, who was in contact with Mr Trump last Friday and Saturday, trying to calm him after Flynn's guilty plea.
Mr Dowd apologised to White House officials for the tweet, saying he should have been more careful with his language in trying to parrot a statement released last Friday by another Trump lawyer, Mr Ty Cobb.
It is not clear that Mr Trump was ever told that the FBI believed Flynn had lied in his interview with agents.
Any attempt to stifle Mr Mueller's investigations could draw obstruction of justice charges for Mr Trump, the same charges that forced then President Richard Nixon from office in 1974.
"Trump's claim today that he fired Flynn because of lies to FBI, as well as (Vice-President) Pence, shows knowledge of lawbreaking he concealed - never before disclosed," Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a former state attorney-general, said on Twitter.
"Obstruction of justice in the Oval Office unfolding before our eyes in real time."
After Mr Comey was himself fired in May, he testified under oath before a Senate panel that, a day after Flynn's firing, Mr Trump asked him to drop his investigation into the former national security adviser.
This was denied by Mr Trump in a tweet yesterday.
The President also insisted he and his campaign had not colluded with Moscow in last year's election, and shifted blame on the Justice Department and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
"I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn. Just more Fake News covering another Comey lie!" Mr Trump said in a tweet.
Having fired Mr Comey as FBI director, Mr Trump could likewise fire Mr Mueller or he could pardon Flynn or others swept up in the investigation.
Either tack would almost surely provoke a bipartisan firestorm and, critics warned, potentially expose Mr Trump to impeachment proceedings for obstruction of justice.
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WHY FLYNN'S GUILTY PLEA AND TRUMP'S REACTION MATTER
1 Flynn's guilty plea undermines what the White House has said about the Russia controversy engulfing the Trump presidency
The plea deal cut by former national security adviser Michael Flynn with special counsel Robert Mueller means there is now no credible way for President Donald Trump to claim the Russia investigation is a hoax, made up, fake news or a witch-hunt, wrote Mr Stephen Collinson in an analysis piece for CNN.
"Not many months ago, the President liked to call this 'fake news' and a fake investigation and a 'witch-hunt'. As of today there is no fake investigation, there is no fake news, there is no witch-hunt," former US attorney Michael Moore told CNN.
"Mike Flynn, a high-ranking member of the Trump administration, in charge of our national security, has now come in and admitted the allegations are in fact true," he added.
2 Critics charge the US President has again opened himself up to obstruction of justice claims
Obstruction of justice is one of the reasons under which a US president can be impeached, and was what eventually brought down Mr Richard Nixon.
In a tweet on Saturday, Mr Trump said: "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice-President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"
The tweet immediately caught the attention of critics, who questioned whether Mr Trump knew Flynn had lied to the Federal Bureau of Investigation when the President asked then FBI director James Comey to let the investigation into Flynn go.
Some critics, according to CNN, say Mr Trump's tweet is a possible admission of obstruction of justice.
3 The guilty plea raises the question whether Flynn and other members of the Trump transition team had improperly lobbied on Israel's behalf.
Apart from raising new questions about links with Russian officials, Flynn's guilty plea also raised concerns whether he and other members of the Trump transition team were improperly lobbying on behalf of Israel.
Flynn told the court on Friday that he discussed US sanctions on Russia with Russia's then Ambassador to the US Sergei Kislyak in December last year. Flynn also asked Mr Kislyak to help delay a United Nations vote seen as damaging to Israel, according to prosecutors.
Israel, it was reported widely at the time, had been lobbying the team of then President-elect Trump in an attempt to derail the vote, reported The Guardian newspaper.