WASHINGTON - A federal judge on Thursday ordered that prosecutors make public a transcript of a phone call that former national security adviser Michael Flynn tried hard to hide with a lie: his conversation with a Russian ambassador in late 2016.
U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan in Washington ordered the government also to provide a public transcript of a November 2017 voice mail involving Flynn. In that sensitive call, President Donald Trump's attorney left a message for Flynn's attorney reminding him of the president's fondness for Flynn at a time when Flynn was considering cooperating with federal investigators.
The transcripts, which the judge ordered be posted on a court website by May 31, would reveal conversations at the center of two major avenues of special counsel Robert Mueller III's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. So far they have only been disclosed to the public in fragments in court filings and the Mueller report.
Sullivan also ordered that redacted portions of the Mueller report that relate to Flynn be given to the court and made public.
Sullivan's orders came very shortly after government prosecutors agreed to release some sealed records in Flynn's case. The release was in response to a motion filed with the court earlier this year by The Washington Post, which argued that the public deserved to know more about Flynn's role in key events and cooperation with investigators.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one felony count of making a false statement to FBI investigators about his contact with the ambassador and awaits sentencing.
The purpose of the phone calls, and the motives of the callers, have been hotly debated.
In the December 2016 call, Flynn urged that the Kremlin not get too riled up about U.S. sanctions that President Barack Obama had just announced against Russia and to give Trump time to take office. That conversation, intercepted by U.S. intelligence, raised grave concerns about Russians' secret and frequent contact with Trump allies and advisers during the campaign and before his inauguration.
In the second conversation, an attorney for Trump tried to learn whether Flynn had any problematic information about the president after Flynn's attorney signaled his client might begin cooperating with Mueller's investigators. The attorney was John Dowd, then a private attorney for the president, according to people familiar with the episode. The special counsel was then threatening to charge Flynn with lying to FBI agents about his call to the ambassador. Dowd's voice mail was scrutinized as Mueller's investigators probed whether the president engaged in obstruction of justice to try to thwart the probe, and whether he deployed his aides to assist him.
In one of the unredacted filings released Thursday, prosecutors said Flynn described multiple episodes in which "he or his attorneys received communications from persons connected to the Administration or Congress that could have affected both his willingness to cooperate and the completeness of that cooperation."
In addition to the transcripts, it also is possible that the judge may release the audio recordings of the conversations. In his Thursday order, Sullivan directed that the government provide a copy of those recordings to him in his chambers, along with any other calls Flynn made to the Russians, so he can review them.
Dowd and the president's current attorney, Jay Sekulow, declined to comment as did a spokesman for the White House.
Robert Kelner, the attorney for Flynn, could not be reached for comment Thursday night.
The newly unsealed portions of court records showed Flynn was a fount of useful information to the special counsel's team in 2017 and 2018, helping it probe the Trump campaign's effort to gain stolen emails and the question of whether Trump sought to criminally interfere in the investigation bearing down on him.
The records confirm the questions that Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and former military intelligence officer, helped federal prosecutors answer after his guilty plea. Flynn admitted in 2017 that he tried to conceal the nature of his conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and then began cooperating with Mueller's team to try to reduce and possibly avoid a prison sentence.
Flynn also provided the special counsel with information about efforts by the Trump campaign and Trump allies to seek out stolen emails during the campaign after WikiLeaks began publishing internal Democratic correspondence in July 2016, the records show. He also provided evidence of "multiple efforts" by people connected to Trump that could have impacted his willingness to cooperate with the probe, useful information as Mueller explored whether the president obstructed justice.
At the same time, Flynn assisted federal prosecutors based in Alexandria, Virginia, who were preparing criminal charges against his former business partner, Bijan Kian, for working as an unregistered agent of Turkey. Kian has pleaded not guilty to the charges. He is expected to face trial in July, and Flynn is expected to be a critical witness for the government.
The new material echoes the Mueller report findings, but helps explain why prosecutors told Sullivan they had found Flynn's cooperation valuable and recommended he receive little or no prison time.
Ultimately, Flynn opted to postpone his sentencing when Sullivan said he was distressed by Flynn's conduct and said he was inclined to give him prison time if he hadn't yet finished cooperating with the government.
The Mueller team analyzed the Dowd call to Kelner and other allies' outreach to Flynn for possible obstruction of justice, but ultimately determined the evidence of Trump's intent was "inconclusive." Mueller's team noted their inquiry was hampered because much of the conduct involved Trump's legal team, and concerns about attorney-client privilege limited the special counsel's investigation.
Mueller's team noted in particular that in November 2017 - after Flynn withdrew from his joint defense agreement with the president - Trump's "personal counsel", who was Dowd, left a voice mail for Kelner that urged him to give a "heads up" if they had anything that implicated the president. He added: "remember what we've always said about the President and his feelings toward Flynn." In a later call, Kelner repeated that he could not share information with Dowd, and Dowd grew indignant and said he believed the president would be very displeased, the report said.
Trump seemed particularly eager to convey his affection for Flynn after Flynn left the White House in the wake of reports about his calls with Kislyak. Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Mueller's team that Trump asked him to call Flynn after he was let go to convey that the and former deputy national security adviser K.T. McFarland both told investigators Trump asked them to reach out to Flynn to check on him and tell him to stay strong, according to Mueller's report.
- - -
The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky and Spencer S. Hsu contributed to this report.