President Donald Trump changed his story today on why he fired Michael Flynn as his national security adviser, now suggesting he knew at the time that Flynn had lied to the FBI, as well as to Vice President Mike Pence, about his contacts with Russians during the presidential transition. That was a turnabout from his initial explanations that Flynn had to go because he hadn't been straight with Pence about those contacts.
Lying to the FBI is a crime, and one that Flynn acknowledged on Friday in pleading guilty and agreeing to co-operate with the special counsel's Russia investigation.
Trump's tweet: "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!" White House officials did not respond to questions today about Trump's altered explanation as to why he fired Flynn.
White House officials told The New York Times that Trump was acknowledging Flynn's guilty plea on Friday for lying to the FBI. The newspaper reported that Trump's tweet was composed by his top personal lawyer, John Dowd, who later apologised to White House officials for the tweet, saying he should have been more careful with his language.
The Times also reported that emails among top Trump transition officials suggested that Flynn was in close contact with other senior members of the transition team before and after he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. McFarland, a transition adviser to Trump, suggested that Russian sanctions announced by the Obama administration had been aimed at discrediting Trump's victory. She wrote that the sanctions could also make it more difficult for Trump to ease tensions with Russia, "which has just thrown the USA election to him," she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.
A White House attorney told the newspaper McFarland only meant that Democrats were portraying it that way. It's unclear now why Trump would cite lying to the FBI as a reason for firing Flynn.
Doing so suggests the president knew at the time that Flynn had done something that is against the law, and therefore the investigation could not be as frivolous as he's been portraying.
It's also unclear how he would know that, if information about Russian contacts had not reached him, as he has been implying in his own defence. Flynn left the White House in February, only acknowledging that he had given an incomplete account to Pence of his conversations with Kislyak. After Trump forced Flynn out, he asked FBI Director James Comey to end the bureau's probe in the matter, according to Comey's account.
Comey refused, and Trump fired him, too. Then-White House spokesman Sean Spicer said after Flynn's firing that it was the result of a "trust issue" and the White House counsel's office had determined there was not a legal issue.
"Whether or not he actually misled the vice president was the issue, and that was ultimately what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn," Spicer told reporters on February 14.
"That's it, pure and simple. It was a matter of trust." Trump has been publicly dismissive of Comey and of special counsel Robert Mueller's continuing investigation, and was often generous in his appraisal of Flynn, except to say his adviser could not stay on the job after misleading his vice president. At the time, Pence said Trump was justified in firing Flynn because Flynn had lied to him.
Neither Trump nor Pence indicated concern then that the FBI had not been told the true story. Pence, who served as head of Trump's transition, has not publicly commented on Flynn's plea.