WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump claimed Thursday that newly released FBI notes exonerate former national security adviser Michael Flynn, even though he pleaded guilty to charges of lying about contacts with a Russian ambassador.
The notes have given Trump and his allies new ammunition to argue that the FBI unfairly targeted him and his aides during the Russia investigation. Legal analysts said the president and his people are distorting the contents of the notes, which focus on a 2017 interview in which Flynn apparently lied to agents about his contacts with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States.
“They tormented him – dirty cops tormented Gen. Flynn,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday while suggesting he would pardon his ex-aide if he is unable to withdraw his guilty plea.
“If you look at those notes from yesterday, that was total exoneration,” Trump said.
Less a month after taking office in 2017, Trump fired Flynn as national security adviser. Trump and his aides said the former military officer lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his talks with the Russians. Now, Flynn has asked a federal judge to allow him to withdraw his 2017 guilty plea for lying to the FBI. Flynn claims he was coerced into making that plea, and that the FBI framed him as part of an effort to embarrass Trump.
While seeking to withdraw his guilty plea, Flynn’s case has been stalled in federal court for more than two years as his defense team alleges a government conspiracy to frame him.
Four newly release pages of emails and documents show FBI officials preparing for an interview with Flynn in January 2017. The documents show investigators mulling over what to tell Flynn and how to handle the investigation into Flynn’s communications with the Russian ambassador weeks before Trump took office.
“What is our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” according to a page of handwritten notes. “We regularly show evidence, with the goal of getting them to admit their wrongdoing.”
The notes also show that investigators predicted Flynn would lie to the FBI and mulled over how to respond if he did.
“If we get him to admit to breaking the Logan Act, give facts to DOJ let them decide,” according to the notes, which referred to the law forbidding private citizens from corresponding with foreign governments. “Or, if he initially lies, then we present him (redacted) he admits it, document for DOJ let them decide how to address it.”
“If we’re seen as playing games, WH will be furious,” according to the notes, referring to the White House.
In another email, former FBI lawyer Lisa Page asked if officials should advise Flynn at the beginning of the interview that lying to the FBI is a crime – or if that warning should come after Flynn gave a false statement.
“Does the policy speak to that?” Page asked in an email sent to former FBI agent Peter Strzok and other officials whose names were redacted.
Lawyers for former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, Strzok and Page did not comment. James Baker, former FBI general counsel, also declined to comment.
Flynn’s defense team, led by conservative lawyer and Fox News commentator Sidney Powell, has declared his innocence, accusing investigators of forcing him to admit to crimes he didn’t commit and hiding evidence that would’ve exonerated him. A federal judge has rejected those claims.
The documents were released as a result of a Justice Department review of the criminal case against Flynn. Attorney General William Barr tapped Jeffrey Jensen, the chief federal prosecutor in St. Louis nominated by Trump in 2017, to look into concerns raised by Flynn’s attorneys about the FBI’s investigation of the former Army general.
“Mr. Jensen obtained and analyzed these documents during the course of his ongoing review and determined they should be provided to the court and Mr. Flynn’s defense counsel,” Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.
Last week, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Washington D.C. disclosed that prosecutors have turned over documents to Flynn’s attorneys as part of Jensen’s review. In court records filed shortly after, Flynn’s attorneys said prosecutors had just given the defense team “stunning” evidence that proves he was “deliberately set up and framed” by FBI agents.
Legal analysts called the FBI notes run-of-the-mill, and said FBI agents had good reason to believe Flynn had lied repeatedly about his conversations with Kislyak.
“They were debating how to approach him about the lie,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer. “Law enforcement does this kind of thing on a routine basis. The only difference is it’s usually not with a powerful White House staffer.”
Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor, said the notes reflected preparation for an interview, and are not unusual at all.
“Michael Flynn was treated like thousands of other subjects who were interviewed by FBI agents,” he said. “If you don’t like how Flynn was treated, change the rules for everyone. Because this is how it works.”
A foreign policy adviser to Trump’s presidential’s campaign, Flynn contacted Kislyak shortly after Trump won the 2016 election
Flynn initially denied that he spoke about the prospect that the Barack Obama administration would sanction Russia over its interference in the 2016 elections. Later, he acknowledged that the topic of sanctions did come up, and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.
Though he fired Flynn, Trump has frequently expressed sympathy for his ex-aide’s legal plight. Trump has described Flynn as a pawn in what he has called a “hoax” FBI effort to tie him to Russians who hacked Democratic emails and pushed fake news during the 2016 election.
The office of special counsel Robert Mueller, who prosecuted the Flynn case, found that the Russian government undertook a “sweeping and systematic” campaign to help Trump win the White House in 2016, believing it would benefit from his presidency.
In a voluminous report released in 2019, Mueller’s team said it did not find evidence that Trump or his associates conspired with Russians to sway the election, though investigators found that the then-candidate and his campaign aides were eager beneficiaries of Russia’s help.
Flynn is one of half a dozen former Trump aides and associates who either pleaded guilty or were convicted of crimes such as lying to Congress and fraud as a result of the Mueller investigation.
Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidant, was sentenced to 40 months in prison. Stone, who lost a bid for a new trial, is appealing his conviction. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, is serving more than seven years in prison. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, is serving three years and was granted an early release as the coronavirus pandemic spreads in the federal prison system.