Michael Flynn, the former national security advisor for the Trump administration, pled guilty today in a Washington, D.C. courthouse to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He exited in police custody, amid shouts of “lock him up.”
Even before Flynn was indicted, other prosecutors said FBI special prosecutor Robert Mueller was likely pursuing an obstruction of justice case against Trump himself. Flynn’s statements to Mueller bolster that argument (see below). Long-time Trump booster and former judge Andrew Napolitano has called the situation a “total nightmare” for Donald Trump, and said Flynn’s indictment was “probably the tip of a prosecutorial iceberg.”
But no matter what the FBI concludes, or how strong Mueller’s case is, the Republican-led Congress will have the final say over what happens to Trump. Here’s what could come next, and how Congress’s next moves could be the beginning of a constitutional crisis:
Background: Did the White House lie?
Flynn was named Trump’s intended national security advisor in mid-November, and only held the position through February 13, after the Department of Justice told the White House that he may have held inappropriate conversations with Russian ambassador to the US.
When Flynn stepped down, the White House said “there was nothing wrong or inappropriate about those discussions,” but that the president had lost trust in Flynn, after the general “continued to maintain” that those conversations had not occurred.
Court documents filed today indicate that the White House was lying. Flynn’s conversations, according to his sworn “statement of offense” were part of a coordinated effort by several members of the Trump transition team to direct the US’s relationship with Russia and other foreign governments months before Donald Trump took office, in a violation of the Logan Act.
Jared Kushner is next for Mueller
On Dec. 22, a “very senior member” of the Trump transition team directed Flynn to find out where foreign governments, including Russia, stood on a proposed United Nations resolution on Israeli settlements and influence them to “delay the vote or defeat the resolution,” according to Flynn’s “statement of offense.“
That very senior member is the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to multiple reports. Kushner was interviewed by the FBI for about 90 minutes in earlier November. Depending on what he said then, and what sort of evidence Mueller’s office has amassed, there’s a possibility he could be indicted under the same charges as Flynn, lying to the federal government.
“With Flynn testifying, Mueller’s now got a very strong case against Kushner,” said Richard Silverstein, who writes Tikun Olam, a blog on Israeli security. It is unlikely that Kushner provides any evidence that Trump directed Flynn himself, though. “I don’t think Kushner is going to fold, there is just too much at stake in terms of protecting his father-in-law” and his family. Kushner has been married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka since 2009 and they have three children together.
ABC is reporting, however, that Flynn is prepared to testify that Trump himself ordered him to speak to Russian officials.
Watch for another Trump official to fall
There may be another Trump transition team member besides Kushner still to come under the microscope. This person is identified in Flynn’s statement just as a “senior official of the Trump transition team,” indicating that it isn’t the same person as the “very senior” individual.
On Dec. 29, 2016, Flynn “called a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team, who was with other senior members of the Presidential Transition Team” at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s Florida club, to discuss “what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian ambassador about US sanctions” that had just been filed the day before, Flynn’s statement said.
Meanwhile, Congressional democrats said they were pushing to ramp up their own investigations on Friday, after reading Flynn’s statements.
“The accounts that we’ve received from senior administration officials early on were false,” said Eric Swalwell, the Democratic representative on the House committee investigating Russia’s meddling in the US election. “It’s time to come clean to the American people,” he said, mentioning Kushner and Donald Trump Jr., the president’s first-born son.
Don Jr. is a special focus, Swalwell indicated. “We want to know what he conveyed to his father, what was his working relations with Russians and how they played out” during the campaign, Stalwell said
How a constitutional crisis could unfold
Because Republicans hold both the House and the Senate, they still hold the cards when it comes to Trump’s future. Whatever the FBI concludes, it can only present evidence to Congress about Trump, and only Congress can start impeachment proceedings against the president.
So far, while both houses are conducting their own investigations into Russian meddling in the US elections, Republicans have not pushed aggressively to investigate the White House’s communications with Russia.
America could face a constitutional crisis when Mueller’s investigation ends, some security experts worry. “If Mueller builds a strong legal case for obstruction of justice, and the Republican congress refuses to act, that sends the White House a message that there is pretty much nothing they can do to get an enforcement action against them,” said Stephen Biddle, a defense policy expert at the Council for Foreign Relations
The question is going to be “Is the president above the law?’” he said. If the Mueller investigation concludes the White House’s conduct was illegal, but the Republican-led Congress does nothing, “it would send a powerful message that Trump really could shoot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue and no one would stop him,” Biddle said.