Did President Donald Trump accidentally admit to obstruction of justice over the weekend?
All through Friday, the president hadn’t yet tweeted about the news that his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn had agreed to a plea deal in the Russia investigation.
By midday Saturday, though, he could maintain his silence no longer:
At first glance, this tweet might seem to be just another typically boisterous Trump denial of wrongdoing. But many soon observed that it could be deeply problematic for the president’s legal defense.
The issue here is Trump’s apparent admission that he fired Flynn in part because he “lied to” the FBI — something Trump has not said in the past. Lying to the FBI is a crime, so if Trump knew Flynn had done that before firing him, that would suggest he knew Flynn committed a crime.
And if Trump knew Flynn committed a crime, his subsequent urgings to then-FBI Director James Comey to “let” the Flynn investigation “go” look even more like obstruction of justice than they already did.
So it’s not surprising that soon enough, Trump’s legal team tried to clean up the mess — by claiming both that Trump didn’t even write the tweet, and that the wording in it wasn’t quite right.
But this attempted cleanup is only raising more questions about the murky circumstances behind Flynn’s actions during the transition, and his ultimate firing — and just what Donald Trump knew and when he knew it in each case.
Trump’s team is now claiming he didn’t personally write the tweet
Team Trump’s first attempt to explain away the errant tweet was a claim that Trump himself didn’t even write it.
Instead, officials leaked to the Washington Post that the tweet was drafted by John Dowd — the top lawyer representing Trump personally (rather than the White House) in the Russia investigation.
Dowd subsequently came forward and said the same. He said “that he drafted the tweet and then sent it to White House Social Media Director Dan Scavino to publish,” according to NBC News.
White House aide Kellyanne Conway made a similar claim on Fox News Monday morning. “I was with the president on Saturday all day, frankly, and I know that what he [Dowd] said is correct,” Conway said. “What he says is that he put it together and sent it to our director of social media.”
However, when NBC News asked Dowd for a copy of the draft tweet, Dowd then “said he dictated it orally” to Scavino. That doesn’t really seem to match the description that Dowd “sent” the draft tweet to Scavino… but it is a medium that would conveniently leave no record.
And Dowd also hasn’t explained whether Trump himself saw the tweet before it was posted.
Trump’s team is also claiming the tweet’s language wasn’t quite right
Then, there’s part two of the cleanup, which involves the actual content of the tweet.
Basically, Dowd is trying to disavow the exact language of the tweet — the statement that Trump fired Flynn in part because he knew he “lied” to the FBI — by saying it wasn’t quite accurate.
What he was trying to refer to, Dowd told NBC News, was a previously reported Justice Department warning to the White House about Flynn’s conversations with the Russians.
However, Dowd claims that the DOJ in fact did not actually accuse Flynn of lying to the FBI at that time. Per NBC:
So, according to Dowd, what Trump’s tweet should have said wasn’t that Trump knew Flynn “lied” to the FBI — but instead that he was told that Flynn gave an incorrect story to the FBI.
A report by CNN’s Kara Scannell Monday somewhat corroborates that — claiming that McGahn told Trump in late January that he believed Flynn had misled both the FBI and Pence, but that McGahn didn’t go so far as to specifically tell Trump that Flynn had “violated the law.”
However, Scannell’s source claims that McGahn also recommended that Trump fire Flynn. Yet Trump took no action against Flynn for at least two more weeks, and only was spurred to after an account of Sally Yates’s warning leaked into the press.
What we know about Flynn’s firing: a recap
To understand why all this matters, let’s recap what we know about the murky circumstances around Michael Flynn’s firing as national security adviser:
- On December 29, 2016 — the day President Barack Obama announced new sanctions on Russia — Flynn secretly called Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and requested that Russia not escalate the situation.
- Two weeks later, news of this call leaked. In response, press secretary-designate Sean Spicer and Vice President-elect Mike Pence both publicly claimed the call was innocuous and that the topic of sanctions never even came up between Flynn and Kislyak.
- Shortly after Trump’s inauguration, FBI agents interviewed Flynn about his contacts with Kislyak. Flynn falsely told the agents that he did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak.
- Days later, acting Attorney General Sally Yates told White House Counsel Don McGahn about the true nature of the calls, and warned that Flynn could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
- Over two weeks then passed in which Trump took no action against Flynn.
- Finally, on February 13, news of Yates’s warning leaked to the Washington Post, and Trump fired Flynn that same night. Spicer claimed that Flynn was in no legal jeopardy but that he was fired because of “a trust issue” due to misleading Pence.
- The next morning, Trump cleared the room after a meeting of his national security advisers, and asked only FBI Director James Comey to stay behind. Per Comey’s later testimony, Trump then said to him, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”
The White House’s explanation for these events doesn’t hold up
There have long been many unanswered questions about all this. Why did Flynn talk sanctions with Kislyak, and who else on Trump’s team knew about it? How did Pence and Spicer end up misleading the public on this? Why did Trump wait so long to fire Flynn after being briefed about his apparent deception?
The White House’s explanation for what happened here has long been that Flynn was, essentially, a rogue actor. That he talked sanctions with Kislyak on his own initiative, that he gave bad information to Spicer and Pence, and that he was eventually fired after a review into his behavior surfaced the truth.
This never made all that much sense, and it makes even less sense now.
For one, Flynn has now said, as part of his plea deal, that he kept several Trump transition officials informed about his urgings to Kislyak that Russia should have a restrained response to Obama’s sanctions. Trump transition team emails leaked to the New York Times this weekend corroborate this. And at the time, Trump himself made quite clear that this was exactly what he wanted, in a tweet praising Putin’s announcement that he wouldn’t retaliate:
None of this makes Flynn appear like a rogue actor in his outreach to Kislyak. Indeed, it has long seemed plausible that Trump was well aware of, and approved of, this outreach. If that’s true, Trump would also have known all along that Pence and Spicer’s public assertions that Flynn and Kislyak didn’t discuss sanctions were false.
This would also help explain why Trump was hesitant to fire Flynn after the Justice Department’s warning about him. Why would Trump care if Flynn lied to Pence and misled the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak — if Trump himself was aware of the true nature of those contacts all along, and encouraged public deception about them?
To be clear: The theory that Flynn was acting at Trump’s behest here is unconfirmed. But it would help make a lot more sense of the facts as we know them.
It’s not even clear that the possible underlying conduct — President-elect Trump urging Flynn to reassure Kislyak — would be so damning, so long as there’s not more to the story.
Some say this would be a violation of an obscure law called the Logan Act, which prohibits people outside the US executive branch from making foreign policy. But no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under this law.
Trump would have to explain why he allowed his staffers to lie to the American people about what happened here, but so long as there’s not more to the story, it doesn’t seem like a presidency-ending revelation. Of course, there very well may be much more to the story of this Russian outreach, though.
And there’s the obstruction of justice problem
Furthermore, one thing that makes everything else here look so much more suspicious in retrospect is Trump’s infamous request that then-FBI director James Comey ease off on investigating Flynn.
Again, it was the very morning after Trump fired Flynn, that he cleared a room of advisers and asked to speak with Comey alone.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said, according to Comey’s later testimony and a memo he wrote at the time.
Comey said that he “understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December.” (Trump denies ever saying this.)
This suggests that Trump was well aware that Flynn was facing serious legal jeopardy — indeed, that he was so worried about it that he’d go straight to the head of the FBI to ask him to back off.
Which brings us back to this weekend’s tweet:
Trump’s outreach to Comey looked bad already, even if he just knew that Flynn was under investigation (which he clearly did). But Trump’s interference looks even worse if, as the tweet says, he knew not only that Flynn was under investigation but that he outright “lied to” the FBI. He wouldn’t be just trying to protect an ex-aide who he thinks did nothing wrong — he’d be trying to argue that a guilty man shouldn’t face justice.