When news broke this morning that Michael Flynn, former National Security Adviser, had pled guilty to lying to the FBI, was cooperating with the Mueller probe, and was prepared to testify that Trump ordered him to “contact the Russians,” the stock market dropped 350 points. Presumably traders feared that Flynn’s cooperation would lead directly to impeachment proceedings and all the attendant governmental disruption and economic uncertainty.
After an hour or two, Wall Street’s pulse steadied and the market went back up. There is a lesson for the rest of us in this financial spasm.
First, Flynn’s decision to flip – to plead guilty to a felony violation of 18 U.S.C. 1001 and to enter a cooperation agreement with the government – is potentially a very big deal and potentially very bad news for Mr. Trump and those close to him. Flynn was an early supporter of Mr. Trump, was a campaign insider, and was one of the first people to whom Trump publicly offered a position after the election. Flynn had extensive contacts with Russian officials, including Vladimir Putin, before he joined the Trump camp. We know, and Flynn has now officially admitted, that he had contact with high Russian officials such as Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the election.
Therefore, if the Trump campaign was actively colluding with Russia to affect the 2016 election, it’s a fair bet that Flynn might know about such things. And that would be a big deal.
But this is the Trump campaign we’re talking about here.
In an ordinary presidential campaign, overtures to a traditionally hostile foreign power would be inconceivable. If such a thing were to occur, it would only be after careful consultation by the candidate with his or her senior foreign policy advisers — which, for Trump, would have included Michael Flynn. But if we know anything about the “Trump campaign,” it is that it had none of the attributes of a normal campaign apparatus. Little organization, no meaningful subject matter expertise, and no clear lines of authority. It was, at its core, just the Trump family and a ragtag of opportunistic second-raters, many of whom — notably Donald Trump, Jr., George Papadopoulos, and Carter Page — were prone to thoughtless freelancing in foreign policy matters far beyond their competence.
Therefore, even if some Trumpists were colluding with both hands, it’s entirely possible that Flynn would know nothing at all about it.
Indeed, among the many notable features of Flynn’s plea agreement and the accompanying statement of offense is the complete absence of any reference to any event prior to the November 2016 election. Flynn pleads guilty only to lying about contacts with the Russian ambassador in December 2016. Additionally, in the statement of offense he admits to lying about December 2016 contacts with foreign officials (including Russians) concerning an Egyptian effort to secure UN Security Council condemnation of Israeli settlements, and about his lobbying work for the Turkish government.
Moreover, the report that spooked Wall Street — that Flynn will testify that Trump directed him to “contact the Russians” — doubtless seemed earthshaking because people read it to mean that Trump directed Flynn to contact the Russians about influencing the election. But that reading is not supported by the plea documents. Flynn admits that “a very senior member of the Presidential Transition Team” (later reported to have been Jared Kushner) directed Flynn to meddle in diplomacy on the Egypt-Israel Security Counsel resolution, after the election and before Trump took office. If true, and even if Trump himself passed the instruction on to Flynn through Kushner (which seems quite probable), that’s extremely poor form in a president-elect, but without more I can’t see how it is either criminal (except under the never-enforced Logan Act) or impeachable.
So, if Flynn’s plea is to matter to anyone other than himself, it will be because he has tales to tell Robert Mueller that none of us yet know about. Despite all the feverish speculation, no one other than Mueller’s people and Flynn himself has any real idea what those tales may be. Moreover, the fact that, even though Flynn’s plea had been foreshadowed for weeks, Mr. Trump took no dramatic step like firing Mueller or pardoning Flynn speaks volumes.
An ordinary president, one who felt constrained by traditional norms of American political life, might refrain from doing such things even if he knew that Flynn could damage him severely. Mr. Trump, one need scarcely say, is not an ordinary president. He is rarely even aware of presidential norms and he violates those he is aware of with positive glee. Moreover, he is a congenital risk-taker. So fear of the sort of backlash that followed Nixon’s Saturday Night Massacre firing of Archibald Cox will worry him less than it would an ordinary man. In the last two years, he has violated every rule of American political life and ignored every warning about the probable catastrophic consequences of such behavior. And yet, here he is, President of the United States.
Consider for just a moment this question: If Flynn has a smoking gun that could plausibly bring down the Trump presidency or produce major criminal indictments against anyone Trump really cares about — a tiny circle, I agree, but one that surely includes himself and perhaps his natural children — do we really imagine that Mr. Trump would not long since have reacted spasmodically to news of Flynn’s impending cooperation? Is it realistic to think that if Trump genuinely believed Flynn to present a deadly danger that he would not have gambled on a Mueller firing or a round of pardons?
General Flynn surely does have tales to tell, or Robert Mueller would not have made so favorable a plea agreement with him. And what he will say will doubtless help unwind the Russia story and do no good to the reputation of Mr. Trump and his intimates. But Mr. Trump’s forbearance strongly suggests that Flynn’s revelations will not be of the explosive variety so many are confidently predicting.
If there is a road to Mr. Trump’s removal from office, it is going to be a long and tortuous one. The Flynn plea is but one waystation, and will likely provide no shortcut to the ending many crave. In short, until we know more about exactly what Mr. Flynn will say, people should moderate their expectations.