Michael Flynn’s plea deal with prosecutors in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe is a watershed moment for President Donald Trump — one that leaves him with two choices, each with clear risks.
But here’s the kicker: Flynn told investigators that “a very senior member” of Trump’s presidential transition team told him to make contact with Russian government officials — in other words, he’s now claiming he was just following orders when he went to talk to the Russians.
A “confidant” of Flynn’s also told ABC News that Flynn is prepared to testify that Trump “directed him to make contact with the Russians” once he was the president-elect. The confidant also claims that Flynn feels Trump has “abandoned” him.
Which means that Flynn’s plea deal and cooperation with the Mueller investigation could potentially implicate senior members of Trump’s inner circle, or even the president himself, in at the very least some questionable behavior. Indeed, reports have suggested that Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner may have been one of the senior officials of the transition team who directed Flynn to speak to the Russians.
So at this point, Trump has two options for how to respond to all of this: try to make it all go away, or just try to minimize the potential damage. In other words: betray Flynn or fire Mueller.
Betraying Flynn seems like the better option, even though it will lead to weeks of reports about the hypocrisy and outright lies of the Trump administration. But that seems far more preferable — and less risky — to firing Mueller, which could spark a massive political and constitutional crisis.
Option 1: minimize Flynn’s importance to Trumpworld
Trump could try to downplay the significance of Flynn’s plea deal, saying that it still doesn’t implicate him or other members of his campaign. He could also try to downplay Flynn’s role in his campaign, making it seem like Flynn wasn’t an important figure during the election and that any interactions he had with Russians wouldn’t have come from the top.
Early indications suggest that this may be the strategy the president’s lawyers are pursuing. Top White House lawyer Ty Cobb said in a statement shortly after the announcement of the plea deal that “[n]othing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
That may be true for now. But the fact that Flynn is cooperating with the investigation means he could potentially give Mueller’s team information that does implicate other people in the Trump orbit.
And trying to downplay Flynn’s involvement in the campaign would be a hard sell. Flynn, a former three-star general and Obama administration intelligence official, joined the campaign in February 2016 and immediately became a prominent campaign surrogate, offering Trump some credibility on foreign policy and national security affairs — two areas where Trump had no prior experience.
He led chants of “Lock her up!” during the Republican National Convention on July 18, 2016, referring to Hillary Clinton and the probe into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
Option 2: fire Mueller and spark a political and constitutional crisis
The second option would be to fire Mueller in an attempt to end the probe altogether and prevent Mueller from using Flynn’s cooperation to build a case against the president, his family, or other top aides.