The federal probe into possible collusion between Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russia has now struck at the heart of the White House, with Donald Trump’s former national security adviser admitting that he lied to the FBI about contacts with a senior Russian diplomat.
In a crucial breakthrough for prosecutors, Michael Flynn appeared in a Washington DC courtroom to plead guilty to one count of making false statements to investigators and announced that he was fully cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team.
Mr Flynn is the first person within Mr Trump’s administration to be charged by the probe in a milestone for investigators, and the details in his plea agreement has turned attention back to officials in the president’s inner-circle. Mr Flynn said that in December 2016 – as Mr Trump was preparing to take office – he was instructed to contact Russia’s Washington Ambassador at the time, Sergey Kislyak, taking direction from a “very senior member” of the transition team. He also said that he had discussed what to say to Mr Kislyak with other “senior members” of the team.
While the official was not named in court documents, multiple reports suggest that Jared Kusher, a senior White House adviser and Mr Trump’s son-in-law, could be the “very senior official” involved in conversations.
Mr Flynn, a former army general, admitted that during telephone conversations with Mr Kislyak, he asked for Russia to try and delay a UN resolution criticising Israeli settlements and not to respond in kind to the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats by Barack Obama in response to Moscow’s alleged interference in the 2016 election. A day after the second request to Mr Kislyak, Vladimir Putin announced he was not going to expel US diplomats, a move that was subsequently praised by Mr Trump.
Mr Flynn, 58, appeared in court in Washington. He cut a businesslike figure in a dark suit, offering only perfunctory answers to questions from Judge Rudolph Contreras. Mr Flynn acknowledged the government’s summary of the charge to which he was pleading guilty was correct. He also said that he understood all possible consequences of his plea agreement and that his sentence could end up being either more, or less than the sentencing guidelines permit. He charge brings a potential sentence of up to five years in prison.
After the hearing Mr Flynn issued a statement in which spoke of the pain of enduring allegations of treason – accusations he denied.
Yet he added: “I recognise that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right. My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. I accept full responsibility for my actions.”
President Trump’s lawyers also moved quickly to assign blame to the former national security adviser. They said he had been fired as soon as it became clear that he had lied about his contacts with Mr Kislyak.
“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr Flynn,” said Ty Cobb, the President’s lawyer leading the team dealing with the Russia inquiry.
Court documents show that Mr Flynn told investigators that on December 29, he called “a senior transition official”, who was with other members of the team at Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida “to discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about the US sanctions”.
The documents say that on December 22 2016, a “very senior member” of the team contacted him and asked him to speak with the Russian envoy about the UN vote on Israel as well as a number of other countries. Mr Kusher has been handed the task of helping to achieve a peace deal between the Israeli’s and the Palestinians.
It is understood Mr Kushner was in Hawaii on December 29 2016. It is believed he was one of several senior officials within the Trump transition team working to avoid the UN criticism of Israel.
Senator Mark Warner, the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he would wish to interview Mr Kushner again, with Mr Kushner having previously testified in camera.
“There are a number, like Mr Kushner and others, that we’re going to want to invite back,” said Mr Warner told reporters. He declined to say whether that would include Vice President Mike Pence, who was also among the senior figures within Mr Trump’s transition team.
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Democrats and other critics of Mr Trump were quick to leap on the developments.
“The guilty plea of President Trump’s former national security adviser to lying to the FBI about his communications with Russian authorities marks a dark moment in our nation’s history,” said Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in the House.
Mr Flynn was the fourth person connected to the Trump campaign to be charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. In October, Mr Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his associate Rick Gates, were charged with 12 counts of financial crimes related to their work in Ukraine. At the same time, Mr Mueller revealed foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts with Russia-linked individuals – a similar charge that Mr Flynn admitted to as part of the plea deal.
Mr Trump and his lawyers are likely to be intensely concerned that someone who was a key figure within the campaign, was now cooperating with the federal probe.
“The fact that Flynn was charged with, and is pleading guilty to, such a minor crime, suggests a bombshell of a deal with prosecutors,” said Jens Ohlin, a professor of law at Cornell Law School.
“Flynn was facing serious criminal liability for a variety of alleged missteps, including his failure to register as an agent of a foreign power.”
He added: “If this is the entirety of the plea deal, the best explanation for why Mueller would agree to it is that Flynn has something very valuable to offer in exchange: damaging testimony on someone else. Who? That’s not clear, but it probably is someone at the centre, or close to the centre, of this criminal enterprise.”
Mr Trump has yet to publicly comment on developments. He ignored questions as he welcomed the Libyan prime minister to the White House on Friday afternoon and officials cancelled a press event the two leaders were due to hold.
Both Mr Warner and Congressman Adam Schiff of California, another Democrat, issued statements saying it would be unacceptable for Mr Trump to try to influence any investigations, including the probes their committees are conducting.
Mr Warner referred to an “alarming pattern” by Mr Trump, including the president’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey, who originally led the Russia investigation, in May. Mr Schiff speculated that Mr Flynn’s plea may prompt the White House and its allies to try to curtail congressional investigations or try to end Mueller’s probe prematurely. Mr Schiff said that the US Congress “must make clear” that would be unacceptable.