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Examining What Michael Flynn's Cooperation Means To Russia Probe

Dec 6, 2018
Originally published on December 6, 2018 11:48 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller has been notably free of leaks. What we know so far has come in the form of official court filings, like indictments, plea agreements and what we're seeing this week - sentencing memos. The special counsel on Tuesday released such a memo on Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Similar memos are expected Friday for former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and former campaign chair Paul Manafort. In the case of Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, Robert Mueller recommended a sentence with little to no prison time. The memo mentioned Flynn's, quote, "substantial" cooperation in several ongoing investigations, although details were heavily redacted.

We're going to try to put all this into the context of the larger Russia investigation with Michael Isikoff. He is chief investigative reporter for Yahoo News. He is also the co-author of the book titled "Russian Roulette: The Inside Story Of Putin's War On America And The Election Of Donald Trump." Michael, thanks for being here.

MICHAEL ISIKOFF: Good to be here.

MARTIN: So let's be clear to start off - these memos are filings meant to serve a legal purpose and message to the judge. They're not press releases. They're not statements from the prosecutors. But having said all that, what should we, the public, take away from the filings?

ISIKOFF: Well, you know, it's really like reading tea leaves here because it's a cryptic document. It does refer to Michael Flynn's substantial cooperation with the government over the course of the last year since he pled guilty to lying to the FBI. It does reference, as you pointed out, several investigations. But I should point out that when you read it closely, only one of those appears to be related to Robert Mueller's core mandate of the Russia investigation itself - coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.

There's a reference to a mysterious other criminal investigation that the memos - the sentencing memo says that Flynn has provided substantial cooperation for. But the close reading suggests that that's not something Mueller himself is handling. It's been farmed out to other Justice Department prosecutors. There's some reporting this morning that they may involve an illegal lobbying effort that Turkey was conducting. Flynn had been lobbying for the government of Turkey, had not registered with the Justice Department for that as he should have.

MARTIN: So while potentially nefarious, not connected necessarily to the core mandate.

ISIKOFF: Not connected, right - and then there's a reference to another investigation that may or may not be within Mueller's mandate, for which it says Flynn has provided useful information. So the substantial information says to me, that's assistance - information that the Justice Department can use to prosecute others, to bring other cases. But the one time that that's used in the memo when it breaks down - Flynn's cooperation - it's in reference to that other mysterious investigation - non-Russia.

MARTIN: So words like collusion and obstruction, which we hear about often in conversations like this - notably absent from the visible portion of the Flynn memo.

ISIKOFF: Right, this doesn't really tell us whether Mueller has other cards to play in the core Russia investigation itself. It certainly talks about how Flynn has provided important information, timely information about contacts between the Trump transition team and Russians. That's what Flynn originally pled guilty to lying about. But it's not really much of a roadmap as to whether there are more prosecutions to bring on that front.

MARTIN: I want to play a bit of tape. This is Congressman Mark Meadows. He's a stalwart supporter of President Trump. This is what he said on Fox.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

MARK MEADOWS: Let's look at what's not in there. There is no suggestion that Michael Flynn had anything to do with collusion. He was with the transition team. He was part of the campaign. And yet there's no mention of collusion. I think it's good news for President Trump tonight.

MARTIN: Do you think he's right? Do you think it's good news?

ISIKOFF: Well, you know, he may be. We just don't know. Look, there's a whole other part of Mueller's investigation. That's the obstruction question. Did President Trump obstruct justice when he fired James Comey, when he asked, before that, James Comey to let Michael Flynn go? One would think that Flynn's cooperation would be very important for that part of the Mueller probe. But remember, the chief target of an obstruction investigation would be the president himself. It was his actions that that spurred all this.

And under DOJ policy, presidents cannot be indicted. So what Mueller would do with that information is provide it in a report that presumably, at this point, would go to the acting attorney general, Matt Whitaker. What happens after that is very much unclear. Certainly, Congress will want access to it. The Democrats in the House Judiciary Committee certainly will. How much of that they will see we don't know at this point.

MARTIN: Quickly, what do we know, if anything, about the Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort memos expected?

ISIKOFF: I think those are going to be highly informative. Both are very key witnesses. Michael Cohen pled guilty last week and provided some really substantial information about the Trump Organization and contacts with the Kremlin in reference to a Trump Tower meeting. Paul Manafort, the prosecutors have accused of lying to them. And they are expected this Friday in a memo to lay out what they believe Manafort lied to them about. We're all going to be waiting with pins and needles to read that.

MARTIN: Michael Isikoff, chief investigative reporter for Yahoo, co-author of the book "Russian Roulette," thanks so much. We appreciate it.

ISIKOFF: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.