Russian intelligence services intervened in the 2016 U.S. election to help elect Donald Trump. They intervened in ways that were illegal, and they intervened in ways that were clandestine. In the context of an election decided by 80,000 votes in three states, they intervened in ways that probably were decisive. Altogether, the Russian action to elect Donald Trump in 2016 ranks among the most successful intelligence operations in world history.
President Trump and his supporters dismiss these facts as “the Russia hoax,” but facts they are—facts beyond rational doubt.
Yet despite three years of investigation, much of the Trump-Russia story remains mysterious. We don’t know why the Russians intervened so aggressively, and we don’t fully know how.
We don’t know the why because of the limits of former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, some imposed from above, and some imposed upon himself. The inquiry, for example, seems not to have delved into Trump’s business dealings, despite their potential relevance.
We don’t fully know the how because so many witnesses lied, destroyed evidence, or suffered memory lapses. Did the Trump campaign share polling information with the Russians? Who in the Trump campaign communicated with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, when, and how? Mueller's investigation ultimately failed to find the evidence to answer those questions.
Among those who lied and suffered memory lapses was Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
There have been so many Trump scandals since 2016—so much defiance of law and Congress—that it’s easy to lose sight of what exactly Flynn did. There’s so much noise and fog that it’s hard to remember why his actions were important.
During the 2016 election, the Obama administration declined to hold Russia to account for its intervention. That’s a story in itself. On December 29, 2016, however, the Obama administration did at last announce punitive sanctions on Russia.
The imminence of these sanctions triggered a flurry of communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, reached out to Flynn on December 28. Flynn was vacationing in the Dominican Republic, but on December 29, he spoke multiple times with Kislyak.
On December 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would not respond to the sanctions. That same day, Trump tweeted his thanks: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” Another round of calls followed between Flynn and Kislyak.
What exactly happened here? At first, Trump’s team denied that anything untoward had occurred. On January 15, 2017, Vice President–elect Mike Pence appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation to assure the country that Flynn and Kislyak had not discussed the Obama sanctions. “He had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airplane crash that took place,” Pence said, referring to a December 25, 2016, accident that had killed 92 people. “It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
Pence’s statement was not true. Flynn lied to the FBI about the calls. Back in 2017, Pence insisted that Flynn had lied to him too.
Flynn’s lies mattered not because of some technicality about the Logan Act, the ancient and much-disregarded law forbidding private diplomacy. Flynn’s lies mattered because they may have concealed a deal between Trump and Russia over sanctions.
The Flynn-Kislyak call was recorded by U.S. intelligence agencies. The judge in Flynn’s case ordered that the call be released. The Department of Justice successfully resisted the order by arguing that the recording was irrelevant to Flynn’s conviction and sentencing.
And so Congress and the public remain unaware of what exactly was said to dissuade the Russians from retaliating in December 2016, and what—if anything—the Russians asked for in return. Congress and the public remain ignorant about whether Flynn acted on his own or was directed by President-elect Trump. Congress and the public remain uncertain whether Pence had himself been deceived when he delivered a false reassurance on CBS in January 2017—or whether he was part of the deceit.
Flynn’s lies protected Trump and the Trump administration. Flynn himself has paid a price over the past three years. But in the end, the lies protected him as well. The Justice Department has dropped the case. Flynn will not be sentenced for lying to the FBI, a crime to which he pleaded guilty. He will now become a conservative celebrity, a Trump surrogate on television and the campaign trail. The way is open for him to enjoy fame and recover wealth.
As when the Mueller report was released in spring 2019, Attorney General William Barr has taken it on himself to keep Trump’s secrets buried as deep as he can, for as long as he can. On the day that the Flynn case was dropped, Trump spoke by telephone to Putin. He told reporters that he and Putin had agreed that the investigation of Russian interference was a“hoax”—and that he and Putin had undertaken to work together more closely from here on. “I wouldn’t be surprised,” Trump said to the reporters, “if you see a lot of things happen over the next number of weeks.” The way is now open for Russia and Putin to act again to help reelect Trump, as they acted to elect him in the first place.
At the beginning of the Trump presidency, many congressional Republicans still upheld the traditional view: Putin should not be trusted, and the integrity of U.S. elections should be safeguarded. Three years of partisan battle have changed Trump’s party. In 2019, Trump attempted to extort the government of Ukraine to fabricate dirt against his likely Democratic opponent, Joe Biden. Republicans not only failed to remove the president from office, but many defended his actions as right and proper. Senate Republicans have refused to vote to harden U.S. elections against Russian manipulation, even after Mueller’s testimony that the Russian espionage tactics of 2016 were already being repeated in 2019.
Many of those same Republicans are now acclaiming the decision to drop charges against Flynn as vindication. But vindication is precisely what this is not. Flynn’s release by Barr does not prove that Flynn was innocent of wrongdoing. Being released by Barr does not convert Flynn’s lies into truth. Flynn’s release by Barr only strengthens the suspicion that back in December 2016, Flynn acted with Trump’s approval. Flynn’s release by Barr only strengthens the suspicion that Flynn and Kislyak were furthering a corrupt arrangement between Trump and Putin. Flynn’s release by Barr only strengthens the suspicion that the corrupt arrangement continues to this day.
Flynn beat the rap. But the rap itself resounds louder than ever.