Flynn pleads guilty, is cooperating in Trump-Russia probe

WASHINGTON (AP) — Michael Flynn, the retired general who vigorously campaigned at Donald Trump’s side and then served as his first national security adviser, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about reaching out to the Russians on Trump’s behalf and said members of the president’s inner circle were intimately involved with — and at times directing — his contacts.

His plea to a single felony count of false statements made him the first official of the Trump White House to be charged so far in the criminal investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. And his action could be an ominous sign for a White House shadowed for the past year by investigations, turning Flynn into a potentially key government cooperator as prosecutors examine whether the Trump campaign and Russia worked together to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.

Friday’s developments don’t resolve the paramount question of possible Trump-Russia coordination in the campaign, but they do show that Flynn lied to the FBI about multiple conversations last December with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Court papers make clear that senior Trump transition officials were fully aware of Flynn’s outreach to Russian officials in the weeks before the inauguration.

The officials were not named in court papers, but people familiar with the case identified two of them to The Associated Press as Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and former Deputy National Security Adviser KT McFarland, now up for an ambassadorship.

That revelation moves the Russia investigation deeper into the White House. And, given the direct involvement of the transition team in Flynn’s calls with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the plea also raises questions about the accuracy of repeated assertions by the administration that Flynn had misled Mike Pence and other officials when he denied having discussed sanctions with the diplomat.

Flynn, the longtime soldier, stood quietly during his plea hearing except to answer brief questions from the judge. He accepted responsibility for his actions in a written statement, though he said he had also been subjected to false accusations. He said, “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.”

A former Defense Intelligence Agency chief, Flynn was a considerably more vocal Trump surrogate during the campaign, known for leading rally crowds in “Lock her up” chants regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Though prosecutors also had investigated Flynn lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government, the fact that he was permitted to plead guilty to just one count, and faces a guideline range of zero to 6 months in prison, suggest that prosecutors see him as a valuable tool in their investigation and are granting a degree of leniency in exchange for cooperation.

White House lawyer Ty Cobb sought to distance the plea from Trump himself, saying: “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”