Ever since Michael Flynn left the White House after a mere 24 days as national security adviser, the relationship between him and President Donald Trump has been one of the most intriguing and potentially important factors in the Russia scandal. Nearly a month ago, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, a plea that was part of a deal to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller. And now at last, the White House and its allies are ready to unload their cannons on Flynn.
The Post’s Carol Leonnig reports: “President Trump’s legal team plans to cast former national security adviser Michael T. Flynn as a liar seeking to protect himself if he accuses the president or his senior aides of any wrongdoing, according to three people familiar with the strategy.
“The approach would mark a sharp break from Trump’s previously sympathetic posture toward Flynn, whom he called a “wonderful man” when Flynn was ousted from the White House in February. Earlier this month, the president did not rule out a possible pardon for Flynn, who is cooperating with [Mueller]’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.”
Make no mistake: Flynn will be accusing somebody of wrongdoing. And that somebody almost certainly has to be higher up in the chain than himself, which means a very small number of people. According to Leonnig’s piece, prosecutors have not only recommended a sentence of “zero to six months” for Flynn’s one guilty plea but have also agreed not to prosecute his son, who was implicated in some of his questionable activities. Given the enormous exposure Flynn had and the numerous crimes he may have committed – regarding payments from Russia and Turkey; his failure to report money he received; possible lies told to investigators; and even his alleged role in an outlandish plot to kidnap exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen from Pennsylvania and spirit him back to Turkey, for which Flynn and his son were supposedly to be paid as much as $15 million – he could have been looking at a significant stretch behind bars.
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But he won’t now, because he was able to offer information Mueller found valuable enough to make all that go away. We still don’t know what it is, and that’s one of the most important unanswered questions of this scandal. Does it have to do with the question of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia, obstruction of justice, or both?
Trump worked very hard to keep Flynn on his side, and ultimately failed. Up until now, Trump has been absolutely intent on protecting Flynn, which suggested that preventing Flynn from testifying was of the utmost importance for him. Trump is not known for going out of his way to help other people, to say the least, particularly former aides he has cast off. Yet according to James Comey, Trump asked the then-FBI director to back off investigating Flynn; according to this report, Trump asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats to pressure Comey to lay off Flynn; Trump made a very public show of supporting Flynn and saying nice things about him, and scolded aides when they failed to do the same; and even sent Flynn personal messages of support, according to friends of Flynn’s. And that’s only what has been publicly reported.
We can’t say for sure that Trump did all that in an attempt to keep Flynn loyal and prevent him from cutting a deal with investigators. What we can say is that it was completely out of character. It’s hard to avoid the suspicion that Trump, a supremely self-interested person, did it for self-interested reasons.
As I wrote a month ago, “If the White House suddenly changes how it talks about Flynn, disparaging him instead of saying what an admirable fellow he is, that’ll be a good indication of a change in Trump’s feelings.” Well, now it’s happening. The White House also knows that publicly revealing its strategy to discredit the former national security adviser will serve as a signal to Trump’s allies in the conservative media that the time has finally come to destroy Flynn. You can bet that in the next few days, the likes of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh will unload on Flynn, casting him as a traitor to that highest of principles, that Trump must be protected at all costs. You can also expect hard-right members of Congress (particularly in the House) to find excuses to tear into Flynn in floor speeches and media interviews.
It’s both a legal strategy and a public relations strategy, and chances are that Trump is much more concerned about the latter. While he may or may not fear being indicted, his political survival depends on Republicans staying loyal to him, no matter what everyone else thinks. If they stay in the fold, even if Democrats were to take the House and impeach him, he can’t be convicted (conviction requires 67 votes in the Senate).
Even if impeachment is a remote possibility right now, the White House’s scandal management will be built not on convincing all Americans that Trump is blameless, but on persuading Trump’s base to ignore any charges that emerge and maintain their loyalty to the president. Which is why it’s important that the formerly “wonderful man” Michael Flynn now be defined not just as a liar or a criminal but also as an enemy.
They won’t just be saying that Flynn was unimportant, that his memory is faulty or that his allegations (whatever they turn out to be) aren’t credible. They’ll say that Flynn has become part of the grand conspiracy to destroy the president, and therefore must be disbelieved and hated by any true Republican. That way, tribal instincts can be mobilized to keep building the wall of loyalty around Trump higher and higher, no matter what eventually gets revealed.
It’s not necessarily a bad strategy – if your only goal is to make it to the next election.
Paul Waldman is a contributor to The Plum Line blog at the Washington Post and a senior writer at The American Prospect. Follow him on Twitter @paulwaldman1.