President Trump’s presentation of what happened with former national security adviser Michael Flynn is simple: Flynn was unfairly targeted in early 2017 as anti-Trump forces within the administration of Barack Obama — including Obama himself — sought to undercut the incoming president. The reality is far more complicated and far less suggestive than Trump’s “Obamagate” formulation would suggest.
We should start at the end. Earlier this month, the Justice Department filed a motion to drop charges Flynn faced for lying to investigators. That motion was deeply controversial, contingent upon an interpretation of events that casts Flynn in a surprisingly charitable light — and former Justice Department officials in a surprisingly negative one. The motion followed the release of documents focused on a January 2017 interview in which Flynn made the false statements (by his own admission).
More broadly, the investigation of Flynn, since shortly after his resignation from his position in the Trump administration, has been cast as an effort by the Obama administration to bend the rules and target a Trump ally. When Trump in March 2017 claimed that Trump Tower was wiretapped during the election campaign (a claim for which there is no evidence), his ally Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) revealed that there was some surveillance at play: Flynn’s interactions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were “unmasked” by Obama administration officials.
Last week, acting director of national intelligence Richard Grenell declassified a list of unmasking requests centered on Flynn, a list that includes a number of Obama administration officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s probable opponent in this year’s presidential election.
On Tuesday, Grenell declassified another document that has been looped into “Obamagate”: an email dated Jan. 20, 2017 — the last day of the Obama administration — written by outgoing national security adviser Susan E. Rice. In it, Rice describes a Jan. 5, 2017, meeting of Obama, Biden, then-FBI Director James B. Comey and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. (Both Comey and Yates were later fired by Trump.) The email indicates that Obama asked his team if information related to Russia should be shared with the incoming Trump team without constraint. Comey replied that he had concerns about the extent of Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak and that national security officials might “potentially” want to withhold sensitive information from Flynn.
Now we should step back. It’s easy to consider the actions of the FBI and the Obama team in the context of what we know now, but it’s more useful to consider it in the context of what they knew then.
At the end of July 2016, the Justice Department was told about an interaction between a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, and an Australian diplomat. Papadopoulos told the diplomat that he had learned that Russia had material incriminating Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent. After material stolen from the Democratic National Committee began being released by WikiLeaks that month, the Australian government informed the United States about the Papadopoulos interaction. On July 31, the FBI launched an inquiry into Papadopoulos’s connections to Russia called “Crossfire Hurricane.”
Remember, the hacking of the DNC was publicly reported by The Post the month prior and quickly attributed to Russia. As far back as May 2016, then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. indicated that there were signs Russian hackers were targeting political campaigns. By the end of July, Clapper had publicly articulated suspicions that Russia might be trying to interfere in the election. By August, the CIA provided the White House with a report documenting Russian President Vladimir Putin’s specific instructions to do so.
Papadopoulos wasn’t the only Trump campaign staffer with links to Russia. Campaign manager Paul Manafort had worked for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. Adviser Carter Page, who had previously been identified as a possible recruitment target by a suspected Russian agent, had traveled to Russia in July. Flynn himself had been a guest at an event for Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed media entity in December 2015. That included his attendance at a dinner at which he was seated at the same table as Putin.
Eventually, the FBI opened counterintelligence investigations into each of these officials. Documents attached to the Justice Department motion to dismiss the Flynn charges indicate that the investigation of Flynn — Crossfire Razor — began on Aug. 16, 2016. (Five days earlier, then-CIA Director John Brennan had begun briefing Congress on Russia’s interference efforts.)
Flynn, the document reads, “may wittingly or unwittingly be involved in activity on behalf of the Russian Federation which may constitute a federal crime or threat to the national security.” Flynn’s travel to Russia the prior year was cited. It’s important to note that the Flynn investigation was into whether he as an individual was potentially working on behalf of Russia, not whether the campaign itself was.
Earlier that month, Flynn’s consulting firm had signed a new client: Inovo BV, a Turkish company linked to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. On Election Day, Nov. 8, 2016, Flynn’s name appeared on an opinion piece published by the Hill newspaper in which he advocated an Erdogan-friendly position.
Trump won the election and, on Nov. 17, announced that he would appoint Flynn as his national security adviser. That appointment came against Obama’s explicit recommendation. When the two met in the Oval Office on Nov. 10, Obama warned Trump against including Flynn in his administration. When that fact first emerged, it was attributed to Obama’s view of Flynn, which led to Flynn’s ouster from his position at the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. We now know, of course, that Flynn was the subject of a counterintelligence investigation.
He may also have already been under investigation for his lobbying on behalf of Turkey. By the end of November, federal officials informed Flynn that his lobbying activity was being scrutinized.
It’s not clear when or how often Flynn spoke with Kislyak after being named as the incoming national security adviser. At least to us; federal intelligence agencies were clearly tracking Kislyak’s communications. In fact, that’s central to Flynn’s eventual fate.
There were two interactions between Flynn and Kislyak about which Flynn later lied to investigators. The first was a Dec. 22 call in which Flynn asked Kislyak to ensure that Russia voted against a measure under consideration at the United Nations. (Flynn made similar calls to other governments.) The second was a conversation or conversations on Dec. 29 in which Flynn asked that Russia not introduce sanctions in retaliation for ones the Obama administration had announced the previous day — sanctions that were a response to Russia’s 2016 election interference. Russia didn’t retaliate, and Kislyak later told Flynn it was out of consideration for his request.
The federal government would have been monitoring these calls. Because of limits on surveillance that apply to American citizens, Flynn’s identity would have been withheld from resulting transcripts. The call would instead have been between Kislyak and “U.S. Person 1.” In order to see who was making the request to Kislyak not to retaliate, that anonymous person would need to be “unmasked” — revealing that it was Flynn.
It’s key to note that the vast majority of the Flynn-centered unmasking requests that Grenell declassified occurred before the Dec. 29 conversation. Most of the requests date to mid-December. Only eight occurred after those calls — but, as journalist Marcy Wheeler reports, each of those eight also follows the FBI’s discovery of the Flynn-Kislyak call, which happened no later than Jan. 3, 2017.
The FBI had been planning to end its counterintelligence probe of Flynn before discovering those communications, as Comey testified before the House Intelligence Committee in 2017. A document formally closing the investigation was prepared and dated Jan. 4, but not effectuated given the Kislyak revelation. Apparently coincidentally, Flynn that same day informed Donald McGahn, eventually Trump’s White House counsel, about what the FBI had told him: He was the target of an investigation.
All of this was the context for that Jan. 5 meeting memorialized by Rice. On Jan. 6, a report documenting Russia’s interference efforts (drafted at Obama’s direction) was made public, and Trump was briefed on its contents by Comey at Trump Tower.
At some point, someone familiar with the Flynn-Kislyak conversation leaked it to The Post’s David Ignatius. A column mentioning the Dec. 29 conversation was included in an Ignatius column published on Jan. 12, the same day that an unmasking request came from Biden’s office (providing some evidence, given publishing times, that Biden’s office probably wasn’t Ignatius’s source). The Ignatius column triggered denials from Vice President Pence that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions. Intelligence officials, recognizing that this was incorrect, began debating how to respond.
Former acting assisting attorney general Mary McCord, whose comments were central to the Justice Department’s decision to drop the charges against Flynn, explained in an opinion piece for the New York Times what the debate entailed. There was a risk that Flynn — the incoming national security adviser — could be blackmailed by Russia, given that the Russians knew he had lied about his conversation with Kislyak. The Justice Department wanted to inform the incoming administration about that risk. The FBI didn’t.
“The F.B.I. wasn’t ready to reveal this information to the incoming administration right away, preferring to keep investigating, not only as part of its counterintelligence investigation but also possibly as a criminal investigation,” McCord wrote, adding that the Justice Department “agreed that there was a counterintelligence threat.”
“That’s exactly why we wanted to alert the incoming administration,” she continued. “Ultimately, after our dispute over such notification continued through the inauguration and into the start of the Trump administration, the F.B.I. — without consulting the Justice Department — arranged to interview Mr. Flynn. By the time Justice Department leadership found out, agents were en route to the interview in Mr. Flynn’s office.”
That interview took place on Jan. 24. During the interview, Flynn lied about his conversations with Kislyak. In early February, he admitted to The Post that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, and Trump fired him from his position soon after. After special counsel Robert S. Mueller III began his probe into Russian interference that May, Flynn admitted to having lied to the investigators and made a plea deal with prosecutors.
Trump would like people to believe that Flynn was unfairly targeted as a way of getting to him and, somehow, forcing Trump from office. The reality is somewhat different.
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