CNN could hardly contain its joy -- or its exaggerations — in discussing Mike Flynn’s guilty plea. The cable channel provided wall-to-wall coverage, with barely a glance at the other big news: the first major tax bill in decades. The only thing missing was a Bronco chase on the L.A. Freeway.
President Trump's apologists and his lawyers were spinning just as hard in the other direction. "Nothing to see here. Move along."
In the days since the news broke, both sides have stuck to their talking points and turned the volume up to 11.
Let's strip away the partisan hyperbole and sort out what we really know.
First, with Flynn’s plea alongside Paul Manafort’s indictment, Robert Mueller and the Office of Special Counsel have now snagged the two biggest fish they could catch, outside the Trump family itself. They are using every lure and net a prosecutor has. Manafort and Flynn have every incentive to cough up whatever dirt they have, and Flynn’s deal promises to do so. If that doesn’t worry the White House inner circle, they must be in a bunker.
Ah, but what dirt does the prosecutor have? Only Mueller, Trump and their inner circles know. Only they know whether senior Trump aides have committed underlying crimes or given false testimony. CNN doesn’t know. Fox doesn’t know. ABC doesn’t know and had to withdraw an incorrect report that the president himself was implicated. (The stock market was not amused.) Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) doesn't know, even though he was smiling from ear to ear on TV and doing everything short of dancing and waving a “Mission Accomplished” banner.
What should worry the Trump team most is that Mueller presumably would not offer Flynn such a sweet plea deal if he didn't have valuable information to proffer on higher-ups. And there aren't many people above the national security adviser.
Third, Flynn pled guilty to lying, but what Flynn lied about (contacting the Russian ambassador after the election) was not a crime. What ought to be a serious crime, but is not, is taking money from a quasi-adversarial regime like Erdogan’s in Turkey while serving as principal foreign policy adviser to the president-elect. Manafort, who had been fired from the Trump campaign earlier, was taking money from pro-Russian Ukrainians, and funneling some through the Podesta Group lobbying firm, but his indictment says all this happened well before he joined the campaign. If he had contacts with these sources during the campaign itself, we haven’t heard anything about it.
Fourth, so far, Mueller has no plea and no indictment on the issue that prompted the Special Counsel appointment in the first place: alleged collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. No one, outside the two opposing inner circles, can say if there was serious cooperation and, if there was, if it was criminal. Mueller’s office has been leaking as if it were run by James Comey, but they haven’t said a word about that.
We do know the Russians tried to meddle in the U.S. election. We do know the Trump campaign sought information about Hillary Clinton from anybody who had it, including (apparently) WikiLeaks and Kremlin sources.
Clinton's campaign also got information, or pseudo-information, from the Russians, but it did so far more adroitly, using several layers of cutouts: a law firm, which hired an oppo research firm, which hired a former British intel agent, who paid Kremlin sources. The firm then circulated the unverified information and may have triggered the ensuing investigation by sharing it with a gullible FBI. The FBI and Department of Justice still won’t say if this Clinton oppo research was used to secure search warrants on the Trump campaign and transition team.
Fifth, despite the Flynn indictment, we simply don't know the extent of post-election contacts between the transition team and the Russians, or whether any of them broke the law. Flynn pled guilty only to lying about these contacts, but the contacts themselves don't appear to be illegal. At least, they have never been prosecuted before, and they are not uncommon in transitions. The Obama State Department actually said, at the time, that it had no problem with the president-elect and his team reaching out to foreign governments. If the contacts really were illegal, then surely Mueller would have included them in the plea deal since they would pose a dire threat to any Trump officials involved in the discussions.
The court filings suggest that Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, worked with Flynn on Russia and other international issues. If that activity was criminal (and nothing, so far, indicates it was), or if Kushner lied to federal agents about it, then he is imperiled by Flynn’s plea. If not, he’s not. Moreover, unlike Flynn, he cannot be spent into debtor’s prison on lawyer’s fees — the tactic Mueller apparently used on Flynn, along with threats to indict Flynn’s son.
To the extent that Flynn had substantive discussions with the Kremlin, they came after the election and immediately after President Obama sanctioned Russian diplomats in the U.S. Flynn, following Trump’s soft stance on Russia, urged Putin not to punch back. When Putin withheld retaliation, Trump praised Vlad’s wisdom. That might suggest that Flynn had discussed what Trump would do after the Inauguration and urged Putin not to sour relations before then. That’s unseemly — we have one president at a time — but it’s not criminal.
Should Team Trump be petrified that two high-ranking aides have flipped? Only if Flynn and Manafort know of serious crimes that jeopardize President Trump or his family. So far, there’s no public evidence they do. The Mueller team has penetrated the president’s closest aides but told us nothing about the issue we really care about. Did a presidential campaign cooperate intimately with a geopolitical adversary to swing a U.S. election?
RCP contributor Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago, where he is founding director of PIPES, the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He blogs at ZipDialog.com and can be reached at [email protected].