The Flynn plea: A quick and dirty analysis

Susan Hennessey, Matthew Kahn, Vanessa Sauter, Shannon Togawa Mercer, and Benjamin Wittes, write: The news that former national security adviser Michael Flynn has reached a cooperation and plea deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller could not come as less of a surprise. Reports of Flynn’s bizarre behavior across a wide spectrum of areas began trickling out even before his tenure as national security adviser ended after only 24 days. These behaviors raised a raft of substantial criminal law questions that have been a matter of open speculation and reporting for months. His problems include, among other things, an alleged kidnapping plot, a plan to build nuclear power plants all over the Middle East, alleged violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) involving at least two different countries, and apparent false statements to the FBI. In light of the scope and range of the activity that reputable news organizations have attributed to Flynn, it is no surprise that he has agreed to cooperate with Mueller in exchange for leniency.

The surprising thing about the plea agreement and the stipulated facts underlying it is how narrow they are. There’s no whiff of the alleged Fethullah Gulen kidnapping talks. Flynn has escaped FARA and influence-peddling charges. And he has been allowed to plead to a single count of lying to the FBI. The factual stipulation is also narrow. It involves lies to the FBI on two broad matters and lies on Flynn’s belated FARA filings on another issue. If a tenth of the allegations against Flynn are true and provable, he has gotten a very good deal from Mueller.

The narrowness gives a superficial plausibility to the White House’s reaction to the plea. Ty Cobb, the president’s ever-confident attorney, said in a statement: “The false statements involved mirror the false statements [by Flynn] to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.” Cobb reads Friday’s events as an indication that Mueller is “moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion” of the investigation.

This is very likely not an accurate assessment of the situation. If Mueller were prepared to settle the Flynn matter on the basis of single-count plea to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001, he was almost certainly prepared to charge a great deal more. Moreover, we can infer from the fact that Flynn accepted the plea deal that he and his counsel were concerned about the degree of jeopardy, both for Flynn and for his son, related to other charges. The deal, in other words, reflects the strength of Mueller’s hand against Flynn.

It reflects something else too: that Flynn is prepared to give Mueller substantial assistance in his investigation and that Mueller wants the assistance Flynn can provide. We are not going to speculate about what that assistance might be. But prosecutors do not give generous deals in major public integrity cases to big-fish defendants without good reason—and in normal circumstances, the national security adviser to the president is a very big fish for a prosecutor. The good reason in this case necessarily involves the testimony Flynn has proffered to the special counsel’s staff. The information in that proffer is not in any of the documents released Friday, and it may not even be related to the information in those documents. Prosecutors tend to trade up. That is, for Mueller to give Flynn a deal of this sort, the prosecutor must believe he is building a case against a bigger fish still. [Continue reading…]

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