The Times reports help flesh out the timeline of what the Trump administration knew about Flynn, but it makes the decision to hire Flynn—despite an express warning from President Barack Obama not to do so—even more baffling. It also raises questions about the administration’s process in firing Flynn.
Flynn is the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, but was fired by Obama in 2014. He began lobbying for Turkey in August, at which point he was already a high-profile surrogate for Trump, having spoken at the Republican National Convention in July. Flynn had once been a strident critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, but he published a column in The Hill on Election Day floridly praising Erdogan. On November 17, Trump announced his intention to appoint Flynn national-security adviser, a position that does not require Senate confirmation.
The op-ed attracted attention from Trump lawyers and others, and on November 30, the Justice Department informed Flynn it was looking into his lobbying. Still, Flynn did not hire a lawyer for another three weeks. (Flynn seems to have been quite casual with rules. Despite receiving tens of thousands of dollars to travel to Russia to celebrate the anniversary of the Kremlin-backed RT, he had not disclosed the payments in early 2016, when he reapplied for security clearance.) Then, on December 29, the Obama administration announced new sanctions on Russia. Flynn had several conversations with Kisylak that day, and discussed the sanctions.
Finally, on January 4, Flynn told McGahn that he was under investigation, six days after his fateful chats with Kislyak. Some time between then and January 15, he told Vice President-elect Mike Pence that his conversations with Kislyak had not involved the sanctions, a claim that Pence, believing it true, repeated on Face the Nation on January 15. (Kislyak was one of two Russian officials to whom Trump revealed highly sensitive classified information during a May 10 meeting.)
The FBI interviewed Flynn, apparently at the White House, on January 25. The following day, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates visited McGahn, and informed him that Flynn was lying, and that intercepted communications proved it. Yates believed this was news to McGahn. “When I told him General Flynn had been interviewed [by the FBI] it was clear to me that this was not something he already knew about,” Yates told The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza this week. However, if the Times story is correct, McGahn at least knew that Flynn was under scrutiny.
Peculiarly, McGahn’s response to this, Yates said under oath on May 9, was to ask why the Justice Department cared if one White House official (Flynn) lied to another (Pence). Yates said that she was concerned the American people were being lied to, but also that Flynn was opening himself to blackmail, because he had had lied publicly, the Russians knew he had lied, and, the Justice Department believed, the Russians probably had a recording.