When George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in October, President Trump blew off the news by calling him a “young, low level volunteer” who “few people knew.”
Trump’s attorney, Ty Cobb, attempted the same maneuver on Friday as former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the transition.
In a statement, Cobb pointedly noted that Flynn was national security advisor “for 25 days” and slyly added that he was “a former Obama administration official.”
“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn,” he said in the statement. “The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
But the official response — Trump’s own response hasn’t been tweeted yet — is simply a tougher sell this time around.
Unlike Papadopoulos, a hapless figure who sort of chanced into the Trump campaign, Flynn was a central character. A campaign advisor on national security who regularly went out on the hustings, Flynn intrigued Trump enough to merit serious consideration as a running mate, according to multiple reports from July of 2016.
“The turn toward a military figure is being driven by Trump himself rather than by his advisers, the people said, and comes as the real estate mogul is telling his friends that national unrest may demand a ‘tough and steady’ presence alongside him on the ticket,” noted one report in the Washington Post.
Flynn led a chant of “lock her up” from the stage of the Republican national convention, using his national security background as a cudgel against her private email server. “If I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today,” he said, in a quote that he has had many occasions to regret.
And before his time as national security advisor, he served on the Trump transition team, where he admitted in the plea deal that a senior member of the transition team directed him to make contact with Russian officials in December of 2016.
In his official statement, Trump’s attorney also pointed out that Flynn pleaded guilty to “a single count of making a false statement to the FBI,” another attempt to minimize the day’s events.
But that’s also a tough sell. It’s fairly typical in complex cases like the Russia investigation for prosecutors to agree to drop more serious charges if a defendant agrees to cooperate with the investigation.
And, make no mistake, Flynn faced some serious charges. In addition to the false statements he pleaded guilty to making, he faced questions about his business dealings overseas (as did his son), possible involvement in a plot to remove a Muslim cleric (which Flynn’s lawyer denied) and his failure to report $530,000 for lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government (which he later addressed in a filing), among other things.
Cobb’s statement was also belied by Trump’s own actions in the past.
When Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey in the Oval Office to “let this go,” it was about an investigation into Flynn, according to a memo that Comey wrote immediately after the meeting. And it was Comey’s subsequent firing that led to the appointment of Mueller as special counsel.
All of which leads to the final part of Cobb’s statement today.
“The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion,” he said.
That mirrors reports that Cobb has told Trump and others in the White House that the investigation will be wrapping up soon and that Trump will be exonerated, and other reports that Trump himself — in a highly unusual move — pressed senior Senate Republicans to wrap up their own Russian investigation soon as well.
It’s been a little over six months since Mueller was appointed — barely the amount of time that most low-level criminal cases take for completion. Flynn’s guilty plea indicates that at least one member of the transition team — as yet unnamed — may face charges as well. A grand jury has already postponed some testimony in light of the plea.
Of all the tough sells in Cobb’s statement, the idea that Mueller’s investigation is almost over might be the hardest pitch.