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Delayed sentencing for Flynn leaves key questions unanswered

December 20, 2018
President Donald Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn arrives at federal court in Washington, Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2018. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The delayed sentencing hearing for Michael Flynn did more than just postpone his punishment. It also put off by months any chance of getting definitive answers to questions that have shadowed President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser.

Flynn has long been a pivotal player in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. His calls with the Russian ambassador about sanctions triggered alarms in the intelligence community even before Trump took office, and he’s been a curious object of Trump’s enduring sympathy despite having cooperated with prosecutors.

On Tuesday, a judge lambasted Flynn for his crime of lying to the FBI about his Russia contacts and postponed his sentencing to give him more time to cooperate with prosecutors.

A look at some of the unanswered questions:

WHY DID FLYNN LIE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

The seasoned national security official presumably understood that calls during the White House transition period — in this case, with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak — would be recorded by the U.S. intelligence community, transcript and all.

He almost certainly could have anticipated that FBI agents who approached him inside the White House in January 2017 already knew he had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak and had urged against a strong Kremlin response to the punishment imposed for election interference.

And yet when Flynn was asked if he might have encouraged Kislyak to avoid a “tit for tat” escalation over sanctions, Flynn replied: “Not really. I don’t remember. It wasn’t, ‘Don’t do anything,’” according to notes from the FBI interview.

Adding to the puzzle is that it’s not clear at all that there was anything illegal about the Kislyak contact — at least not in an enforceable way.

Though the esoteric Logan Act makes it a crime for people outside the United States government to negotiate with foreign countries, prosecutor Brandon Van Grack said in court Tuesday that that was “not one of the charges that the government was considering” with Flynn.

WHY DID THE WHITE HOUSE PROTECT FLYNN FOR AS LONG AS IT DID?

Flynn was already in potential legal jeopardy by the time then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover in the last week of her job, warned the White House of a problem: The administration’s new national security adviser had been interviewed two days earlier by the FBI.

And the White House’s narrative that Flynn hadn’t discussed sanctions with Kislyak? Not only was that untrue, Yates said, but the falsehood left Flynn vulnerable to blackmail since the Russians knew the truth of the call.

Yates has said she expected the administration to act and yet roughly three weeks passed before Flynn was forced to resign. That happened late on Feb. 13, 2017, following news reports that exposed details of Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak and the fact that Yates had reported them to White House counsel Don McGahn.

Even his forced resignation wasn’t entirely the end of the relationship. One day later, in a private encounter in the Oval Office, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey if he could see his way to dropping an FBI investigation into Flynn, according to a memo Comey drafted after that meeting.

Why Flynn mattered so much to Trump is not entirely clear. But the interaction with Comey became part of Mueller’s investigation into whether Trump was attempting to obstruct justice.

Flynn obviously still matters to Trump, who tweeted “good luck” ahead of his sentencing and appeared heartened by a defense sentencing memo that insinuated that Flynn had been taken advantage of by the FBI.

WHAT DID TRUMP KNOW ABOUT FLYNN’S CONTACT WITH KISLYAK AND HIS INTERVIEW WITH THE FBI?

The official line about Flynn’s departure was that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials about his Kislyak interactions.

But that narrative got blurred the day after Flynn’s guilty plea, when a tweet from Trump’s Twitter account 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!”

That suddenly raised the possibility that Trump knew all along that Flynn had lied to the FBI and had kept him in his administration regardless.

Trump associates quickly moved to distance the president from the tweet, and Trump’s former lawyer, John Dowd, told reporters that he had written it.

WHAT HAS FLYNN COOPERATED ABOUT?

Presumably a lot, including subject matters not yet revealed.

Flynn met 19 times with investigators, totaling more than 62 hours, and turned over thousands of pages of documents.

His presence on the campaign trail — he memorably led a Republican National Convention crowd in a “Lock Her Up” chant about Hillary Clinton — and especially during the transition period and early days of the Trump White House undoubtedly gave him a close look at key episodes under scrutiny by Mueller.

He likely offered dirt about his interactions with Kislyak and other foreign officials, and the involvement or knowledge of other Trump aides in them.

Charging documents from his case show he was in touch with other Trump transition officials about what to say to Kislyak and other diplomats, not only about the sanctions but also about a forthcoming United Nations resolution on Israeli settlements. Two transition team officials with whom he communicated, who were referred to only obliquely in court papers, have since been identified as Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland.

At minimum, he is a vital witness in a prosecution unsealed this week charging two of Flynn’s business associates with illegally lobbying for Turkey as part of a campaign to pressure the United States to expel a Turkish cleric. His lawyer said Tuesday he was prepared to testify in that case.

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