Jurisprudence

Look for References to Michael Flynn in the Mueller Report to See How Much William Barr Has Redacted

Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn in a composite black-and-white photo.
Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images and Mark Wilson/Getty Images.

Ever since retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn pleaded guilty as part of a cooperation agreement in December 2017, what he was going to tell special counsel Robert Mueller as part of that deal has been one of the Russia scandal’s biggest mysteries. Interest in Flynn’s cooperation increased dramatically when Mueller’s office recommended no jail time for Flynn, despite grave allegations, because Flynn had provided so much “substantial assistance” in the probe. But on Thursday, when Attorney General William Barr has promised to release a redacted version of Mueller’s report, it seems we are unlikely to find out much about the Flynn episode. In reading between Barr’s redactions, we can learn a lot about what the attorney general might be hiding by remembering what we already know about Flynn.

In a letter to Congress last month, Barr said he would redact four categories of material from the Mueller report: grand jury material, information that could affect other ongoing investigations, information that could infringe on the reputation or privacy of “peripheral third parties,” and material that could compromise intelligence sources or methods.

All of this suggests that critical information from Flynn, one of the earliest and more central cooperators of this investigation, will probably be redacted. It was the investigation of Flynn for lying to FBI officers about contacts with the Russian ambassador that President Donald Trump allegedly asked former FBI Director James Comey to drop. It was the revelation of this fact that ultimately led to Mueller’s appointment in the first place. And Flynn was one of the first key witnesses to “flip” and begin cooperating with the government in late 2017.

When Mueller recommended Flynn get little to no jail time, Judge Emmet Sullivan was stunned to such a degree that he took the extraordinary step of suggesting he would not take the recommendation. Given that Sullivan has seen more of the facts of Flynn’s underlying conduct and even commented that said conduct could be “treason” (a legal overstatement but nevertheless a remarkable tell), it seems that there’s at least some important information that we don’t know in what he gave prosecutors and what it might mean for Trump. Sullivan’s comments were a hint about the seriousness of what Mueller showed Sullivan in redacted documents—probably more than a mere Logan Act violation. Further, the fact that Flynn’s sentencing has been delayed for additional cooperation, even though Mueller has said his cooperation is complete, may be enough of a reason—or a pretext—for Barr to redact many of Flynn’s key statements. All of this background is a reminder that if some of the Flynn material is redacted, it will mean a significant portion of the Mueller report will be hidden from the public.

Fortunately, some key details of what Flynn is likely to have provided have already been uncovered by the House Oversight Committee, as well as by public reporting. Regardless of what Barr or the courts release from Mueller, this reporting tells Congress and the public a great deal about potential abuse by the Trump administration, including by Trump son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. Flynn was a key figure in the campaign, through the transition, and into the early administration, involved in many of the key events from both the collusion and obstruction investigations. Barr’s letter quoted the Mueller report saying, “[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But Flynn’s role during the transition and just after the inauguration is critical.*

The following timeline draws from public reporting and a House oversight interim report from February to establish what we already know about Flynn’s role in the Russia scandal. If this material is missing from the redacted report, it could tell us that there’s a whole lot more being hidden.

Nov. 16, 2016: Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, sends a letter to incoming Vice President Mike Pence with concerns about Flynn’s links to Russia and Turkey, and requests more information.

Dec. 1, 2016: Flynn and Jared Kushner meet Russia’s Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower. According to Kushner’s own testimony, Trump’s son-in-law proposed a secret communication link with the Kremlin through the Russian Embassy in an effort to find a “secure line.”

Dec. 13, 2016: Kushner meets Sergey Gorkov, who chairs Russia’s government-owned Vnesheconombank and is President Vladimir Putin’s close confidant. Vnesheconombank is understood by analysts to be Putin’s slush fund and is under strict U.S. sanctions.

Dec. 14, 2016: Gorkov flies to Japan, where he is reported to have met with Putin.

Dec. 28, 2016: Obama orders new sanctions against Russia for election hacking and interference. Kislyak contacts Flynn.

Dec. 29, 2016: According to details later revealed in Flynn’s plea agreement, he calls a “senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” who was with other “senior members of the [team]” at Mar-a-Lago. Flynn and this “senior official” agree that they do not want Russia to “escalate the situation.” Flynn calls Kislyak immediately and afterward reports back to the senior official. Reports suggest that this official was Kushner.

Dec. 30, 2016: Trump tweets to Putin, calling him “very smart” for not responding to Obama’s sanctions in kind.

Jan. 4, 2017: According to later reporting by the New York Times, Flynn reveals to Don McGahn, chief attorney for the transition effort, that Flynn is under FBI investigation. Flynn is still appointed national security adviser and receives provisional security clearance.

Jan. 15, 2017: In the wake of news reports that Flynn and Kislyak spoke during the sanctions controversy, Pence states on CBS’s Face the Nation that Flynn and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.” Pence says he was told this by Flynn himself.

Jan. 20, 2017: According to reporting in the New York Times, Flynn allegedly texted a former business associate on Inauguration Day that their private firm’s plan to build nuclear reactors in the Mideast was “good to go” because U.S. sanctions on Russia—which had been blocking these plans—would soon be “ripped up.”

The House oversight report in February offered dramatic details from whistleblowers about this nuclear power plan. Flynn had reportedly been working with “IP3,” a group of former generals, along with businessman and Trump confidant Tom Barrack, on an American-Russian-Saudi-UAE nuclear arrangement. According to the House oversight report, “one senior political official stated that the proposal was ‘not a business plan,’ but rather ‘a scheme for these generals to make some money.’ That official stated: ‘Okay, you know we cannot do this.’ ” The plan ultimately advanced the business interests of Westinghouse Electric (specializing in nuclear power), which was subsequently bought by Brookfield Asset Management, which in turn leased Kushner’s distressed real estate asset 666 5th Ave. for $1.2 billion. Adam Entous offered many more details about this back-and-forth in the New Yorker.

Jan. 24, 2017: In an interview with FBI agents, Flynn denies that he spoke about sanctions with Russian officials. He later admits that this is a lie and pleads guilty to a federal crime for lying to investigators.

Jan. 26, 2017: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates tells McGahn, now the White House counsel, that Pence, among others, gave incorrect information about Flynn’s Russian contacts. This is a problem, because it means the Russians might be able to blackmail Flynn or the vice president.

Feb. 9, 2017: According to Pence’s press secretary’s later account, Pence was only told about Yates’ warning about two weeks later. The Washington Post also reports on this day that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. But Flynn continues in office.

Feb. 13, 2017: Flynn resigns.

Feb. 14, 2017: Trump meets privately with FBI Director Jim Comey and allegedly asks him to “let go” of the Flynn “thing.” (Comey testified to this under oath before a Senate panel, but Trump has denied it is true in public statements.) After Comey is fired and the details of his contemporaneous notes documenting this encounter are revealed to the public, Mueller is appointed as special counsel and eventually begins an obstruction of justice investigation on this basis.

According to the House oversight report and the Washington Post, Flynn continued his communications with the administration after his dismissal and continued to work on the Russia-Saudi nuclear deal. IP3’s team of generals signed a letter stating: “The agreements by President Trump and Mohammed bin Salman have established the framework for our unique opportunity to take the next steps with IP3 and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” The letter also referenced a “partnership to acquire Westinghouse between IP3 and Saudi Arabia.”

May 8, 2017: According to later reporting in the New York Times, the White House distributes a draft letter written by Trump and Stephen Miller—described by sources as a “screed”— laying out the reasons for firing Comey, including Trump’s displeasure that Comey wouldn’t publicly say Trump wasn’t being investigated in the Russia inquiry. In the Oval Office, Pence and McGahn reportedly review the draft and McGahn reportedly asks that some sections be removed. A version of this letter is sent to Rod Rosenstein, who crafts a new memo justifying the firing and attributing it to Comey’s conduct during the Clinton investigation, with no mention of Russia.

May 9, 2017: Trump fires Comey.

Dec. 1, 2017: Flynn pleads guilty as part of a cooperation agreement.

Because of the Barr redactions, we may not find out on Thursday what Flynn told Mueller of the circumstances of these Russian contacts and Saudi nuclear plans. But it’s clear that the House Oversight Committee is on the case.

A House subpoena for the report and for testimony from Mueller and from witnesses—including Flynn himself—should eventually reveal whatever Barr may try to conceal.

Update, April 18, 2018: This sentence has been updated for clarity.