Since Mike Flynn pled guilty to one count of obstruction a week ago, observers everywhere have wondered how, exactly, the former National Security Advisers’ misdeeds would play into the overall case against Trump and the rest of his inner circle.
Initially, ABC reported that Flynn – who allegedly felt “abandoned” by Trump - was prepared to testify that the president ordered him to reach out to the Russians during the campaign. That report was quickly proved false (but now before the Dow slumped 350 points) when ABC admitted its mistake – reporting that Flynn instead was prepared to testify that Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner asked him to reach out to Russian officials during the transition – something that’s neither illegal nor out of the ordinary for a presidential transition.
So, how exactly then does the prosecution of Michael Flynn fit into the special counsel’s probe?
Special Counsel Robert Mueller
Well, what if, instead of Flynn providing damning information against another member of Trump’s inner circle, or against the president himself, Mueller’s prosecution of Flynn is an insurance policy protecting him and his team from being dismissed by Trump? To wit, Bloomberg speculates that Flynn’s guilty plea might just be the fodder the special counsel needed to protect his team from dismissal by the president. Given that calls for Trump to fire the hopelessly compromised special prosecutor have persisted since last spring, there’s more than enough reason to believe that Flynn’s prosecution is an end in itself.
By securing a guilty plea from Flynn, Mueller has effectively bought his team precious time to uncover the “smoking gun” that has eluded them thus far. Mueller’s prosecution of Flynn is insurance against a presidential firing. At this stage, firing Mueller would lend credence to Democrats’ accusations that the president obstructed justice when he asked former FBI Director James Comey to go easy on Flynn. Of course, Trump didn’t do himself any favors when he tweeted that Flynn was fired because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence and the FBI (though Trump lawyer John Dowd later copped to writing the tweet, it certainly didn’t help Trump’s case for firing Mueller).
Equally as important, Flynn’s prosecution, following so soon after the charges against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, also suggests that his investigation is making “progress” – though the logical end point of his crusade remains murky.
As Mueller’s probe has gotten closer to Trump’s inner orbit, speculation has risen over whether Trump might find a way to shut it down. The Flynn deal may make that harder. For one thing, it shows that Mueller is making progress.
“Any rational prosecutor would realize that in this political environment, laying down a few markers would be a good way of fending off criticism that the prosecutors are burning through money and not accomplishing anything,” says Samuel Buell, a former federal prosecutor now at Duke Law School.
The Flynn plea also makes it difficult for Trump to fire Mueller without inviting accusations of a cover-up and sparking a constitutional crisis, says Michael Weinstein, a former Department of Justice prosecutor now at the law firm Cole Schotz. “There would be a groundswell, it would look so objectionable, like the Saturday Night Massacre with Nixon,” Weinstein says, referring to President Richard Nixon’s attempt to derail the Watergate investigation in 1973 by firing special prosecutor Archibald Cox.
Furthermore, as one legal expert told Bloomberg, it’s difficult to see how Flynn’s testimony will be enough to incriminate another member of Trump’s inner circle. While Flynn’s many alleged misdeeds have been chronicled in the press (most notoriously his alleged plan to kidnap Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen), given what’s been reported so far, it’s hard to see how Flynn’s prosecution ties in to some broader narrative.
Flynn’s testimony might eventually help Mueller bring down Kushner or another top Trump aide, but it’s hard to imagine how Flynn’s word would be enough at this point.
Flynn alone may not be enough to advance an obstruction or collusion case. Prosecutors would likely need evidence against other high-ranking Trump associates, including perhaps Jared Kushner. “Unless you’ve got them on tape, you’re going to need a lot better witnesses than Flynn,” says Raymond Banoun, a former federal prosecutor.
Some experts believe that Mueller’s probe is now almost certain to reach a step beyond that. “Before this is wrapped up, Mueller’s going to request an interview with the president, and he may even request it under oath,” says Amy Sabrin, a Washington lawyer who worked for Bill Clinton on the Paula Jones sexual harassment case. “And then what is Trump going to do?”
Which leaves one option: Flynn’s prosecution is simply an insurance policy. Flynn’s guilty plea helped mollify angry Democrats who are demanding Trump’s head on a platter. At the same time, it will allow Mueller and his team of hopelessly compromised Hillary Clinton supporters to fend off their critics, who've recently been emboldened by reports that Peter Strzok, an FBI agent who played an important role in the early stages of what became the Mueller investigation - and who also helped supervise the bureau’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s mishandling of classified information – expressed anti-Trump sentiments in a series of text messages to his colleague/mistress, FBI lawyer Lisa Page.
Ultimately, Mueller will be able to persevere – and the atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust he has helped foster in the West Wing will continue to hobble the Trump administration.
It’s a win-win.