Analysis: Despite Flynn's guilty plea, Trump presidency not over yet

With a guilty plea and reports that former US national security adviser Michael Flynn is cooperating, the investigation into Russian election meddling has picked up pace. DW answers three key questions.

The guilty plea of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who on Friday admitted to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, is very significant. 

First, in Flynn, not only has a member of US President Donald Trump's campaign team been charged but also a former high-ranking official in the administration.

Second, despite the White House downplaying the charges by saying that Flynn was only in the administration for a short time, he was one of the most important foreign policy advisers, if not the most important, to the future president during the election campaign. Trump's high esteem for Flynn led him to be appointed national security adviser, a position that doesn't require congressional approval, against the advice of many experts.

USA Michael Flynn beim Briefing im Weißen Haus in Washington

Under the deal with Mueller, Flynn can expect only six to 12 months in prison — or a suspended sentence

Third, Flynn's guilty plea is a clear indication that he has provided important information to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who will be able to use that information to prepare investigations and charges against more significant figures. 

"That's the real story here. That he agreed to cooperate in exchange for favorable treatment from Mueller," said Jimmy Gurulé, a former assistant attorney general at the Justice Department and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame.

"You don't enter into a plea agreement unless the prosecutor has determined and independently corroborated that the potential witness has substantial, credible and reliable evidence that would implicate higher ups in the criminal enterprise in unlawful activity."

Read more: Why the Russia probes don't cripple Trump's foreign policy

Politics

2013: Mr Trump goes to Russia

June 18, 2013. Donald Trump tweeted: "The Miss Universe Pageant will be broadcast live from MOSCOW, RUSSIA on November 9. A big deal that will bring our countries together!" He later added: "Do you think Putin will be going - if so, will he become my new best friend?" October 17, 2013 Trump tells chat show host David Letterman he has conducted "a lot of business with the Russians."

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September 2015: Hacking allegations raised

An FBI agent told a tech-support contractor at the Democratic National Committee it may have been hacked. On May 18, 2016, James Clapper, the director of National Intelligence, said there were "some indications" of cyberattacks aimed at the presidential campaigns. On June 14, 2016 the DNC announced it had been the victim of an attack by Russian hackers.

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July 20, 2016: Mr Kislyak enters the picture

Senator Jeff Sessions - an early Trump endorser who led his national security advisory committee - met Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and a group of other ambassadors at a Republican National Convention event.

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July 22, 2016: Assange thickens the plot

Julian Assange's WikiLeaks published 20,000 emails stolen from the DNC, appearing to show a preference for Hillary Clinton over Senator Bernie Sanders.

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July 25, 2016: Cometh the hour, Comey the man

The FBI announced it was investigating the DNC hack saying "a compromise of this nature is something we take very seriously."

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November 8, 2016: Trump elected

Donald Trump is elected president of the United States. On November 9, the Russian parliament burst into applause at the news.

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November 10, 2016: Team Trump denies Russia link

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Rybakov said there "were contacts" between the Russian government and the Trump campaign during the election campaign. The Trump campaign issued a firm denial.

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November 18, 2016: Flynn appointed

Trump named General Michael Flynn as his national security adviser. The former Defence Intelligence Agency chief was a top foreign policy adviser in Trump's campaign. Flynn resigned in February after failing to disclose full details of his communication with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.

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January 26, 2017: Yates - 'The center cannot hold'

Acting attorney general Sally Yates told White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn made false statements regarding his calls with Kislyak. On January 30 Trump fired Yates for refusing to enforce his travel ban, which was later blocked by federal courts.

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March 2, 2017: Sessions recuses himself

Trump said he had "total confidence" in Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions announced he would recuse himself from any investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump campaign.

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March 20, 2017: FBI examines Trump-Kremlin links

FBI Director James Comey confirmed before the House Select Committee on Intelligence that the FBI was investigating possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign.

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May 9, 2017: Trump sacks Comey

In a letter announcing the termination, Trump wrote: "While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau."

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May 17, 2017: Mueller appointed special counsel

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to look into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign.

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August 2017: FBI seizes documents from Manafort

Shortly after Mueller convenes a grand jury for the investigation, the FBI seizes documents from one of Paul Manafort’s properties as part of a raid for Mueller’s probe. The former Trump campaigner manager stepped down in August 2016 after allegations surfaced that he had received large payments linked to Ukraine’s former pro-Russian government.

Politics

September 2017: Trump Jr.'s talks to Senate committee

Donald Trump Jr. tells the Senate Judiciary Committee he has not colluded with a foreign government. The closed-door interview relates to his June 2016 meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, which was also attended by his brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, and then campaign manager Paul Manafort. Trump Jr.’s emails, however, suggest the meeting was supposed to produce dirt on Clinton.

Politics

October 2017: Internet giants allege Russian interference

Facebook, Twitter and Google reportedly tell US media they have evidence that Russian operatives exploited platforms to spread disinformation during the 2016 US presidential election. The three companies are expected to appear before a Senate Intelligence Committee in November.

According to Brandon Garrett, a law professor at the University of Virginia, Flynn has likely already given up valuable information to investigators.

"A plea deal would only have been offered once there was real cooperation," he said.

Lisa Kern Griffin, a criminal law scholar at Duke University, noted that Flynn appears to have gotten off lightly, although further charges are still possible.

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Making false statements to the FBI is a felony that carries a prison sentence of up to five years. But under the deal with Mueller, Flynn can expect only six to 12 months in prison, or possibly a suspended sentence, Griffin said.

That's almost nothing, she added, compared to what the public record of Flynn's activities suggests, which could have led to multiple charges.

In addition, no charges have been brought against Flynn's son, who according to media reports was in Mueller's sights over an alleged plot to kidnap US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen, who is wanted by the Turkish government over last year's failed coup attempt.

Read more: President Donald Trump after six months — Expect more of the same

Who's next?

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Since Mueller's strategy is to work his way up to "big fish" through indictments and deals with "small fish," the net around potential targets will now become smaller.  After all, as former national security adviser, Flynn was already fairly high up in the White House hierarchy. 

For legal experts, there are only a few people in Mueller's sights, and high on this short list stands Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior White House adviser. 

Read more: Kushner denies colluding with Russia after Senate Intelligence Committee meeting

"There were a number of ways during the campaign that Michael Flynn and Jared Kushner were working together and at a minimum I suspect that Michael Flynn has damaging information to offer about Jared Kushner," Griffin said. 

According to US media reports, Kushner is the "very senior member" of the Trump transition team who directed Flynn to make contact with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in 2016.

Trump's son could also be targeted by Mueller, noted Gurulé. "To me the other potential target is Donald Trump Jr. There is reason to believe that he is being targeted based on this June [2016] meeting in the Trump Tower [with a Russian lawyer and others — Editor's note], where he appears to be excited over the possibility of Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton," he said.

Beginning of the end for Trump?

Although many Trump critics — on social media and elsewhere — may be tempted to see Flynn's plea deal as the beginning of the end for the president, it's still premature to conclude whether or not Flynn may implicate others in Trump's inner circle.

Read more: Think Donald Trump will be impeached soon? Think again

For legal experts, this is only a step, even if a significant step, in the long process of Mueller's investigation. Certainly, it's true that the charges have been getting ever closer to the president. But Trump has, so far, never directly been under investigation. And it remains constitutionally questionable whether a sitting president can even be charged.

Griffin thinks it's unrealistic to assume Trump will soon be leaving office — at least at this point in time. She believes the question over Trump's future will likely not to be answered legally, but rather politically in next year's midterm elections.

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