Michael Flynn sentencing key takeaway: Donald Trump is having a terrible December; it just got much worse

New York: In a stunning turn of events, a federal judge in Washington lashed out at US president Donald Trump's acolyte and first national security advisor Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) about his Russia contacts, for selling his country out and then abruptly postponed the sentencing, sending a loud message to all those in the Russia probe crosshairs not to try and 11th hour stunts like Flynn did the night before - when Flynn suggested that he was somehow entrapped and forced to lie to investigators.

Michael Flynn's rough day in court showed politically charged arguments aren't working for Trump's ex-stooges. It also provides a glimpse of how difficult things can get when prosecutors from Mueller's team and New York begin turning the screws at the same time. Today was one such preview.

By the time Flynn was three weeks into his job, the Washington Post revealed that Flynn, while he was still a private citizen and Barack Obama was still President, discussed American sanctions against Russia with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador in Washington. It is illegal for private citizens to conduct diplomacy with foreign governments. Soon enough, Flynn lost his job.

For his part, Robert Mueller is certainly exploring if Trump’s efforts to help Flynn by asking then FBI chief James Comey to give Flynn a pass, and then firing Comey were motivated by something other than loyalty - this is an obstruction-of-justice question which creates the scaffolding for impeachment, even if that is near-impossible in a divided government. In a swift response to Flynn's whining, special counsel Robert Mueller turned in a summary of Flynn's interview with the FBI on 24, January 2017. Clearly, the judge on Tuesday wasn't impressed with the last minute drama and the media spray it was getting barely hours before a sentencing hearing.

Despite Trump's desperate attempt to change the way the Flynn story ends, nothing changed today.

 Michael Flynn sentencing key takeaway: Donald Trump is having a terrible December; it just got much worse

Michael Flynn arrives for his sentencing hearing Tuesday. AP

Flynn's lawyers or whoever pushed them to sneak in a complaint against the FBI seem to have miscalculated badly or it's possible they were keeping open the option of a White House pardon if things go wrong. At another level, it may have simply been a dog whistle to Trump and his base. Not long ago, that was the same base Flynn riled up with calls like this: "Wake up, America! Our very existence is threatened. The moment demanded a President with “guts, not a weak, spineless one who believes she is above the law".

For Donald Trump, the Flynn hearing Tuesday marked a double whammy on the same day news broke that the president’s charity will be dissolved amid claims of its “shocking” illegality. Up to now, New York state was proceeding against Donald Trump and his foundation via civil action. Today’s shutdown suggests we may see criminal charges against Trump and his family over the manner in which they ran the foundation. State-level charges cannot be pardoned by the US president.

In the Flynn sentencing case, the judge was very upset with Flynn's last ditch fig leaf, put Flynn under oath right away and asked him to come clean on the twist in his storyline. With today's hearing, the theory that Flynn was tricked by FBI agents, promoted aggressively on Trump's favorite mouthpiece Fox News, blew up big time.

The hearing came amid escalating legal peril for Trump, who was implicated by federal prosecutors in New York this month in hush-money payments to cover up extramarital affairs. Nearly a half-dozen former aides and advisers — including Flynn — have pleaded guilty or agreed to cooperate with prosecutors. On the same morning, in New York, Trump's charitable foundation reached a deal to go out of business, even as Trump continues to fight allegations he misused its assets to resolve business disputes and boost his run for the White House.

Back in Washington, lawyers for Flynn, who pleaded guilty last year to lying to the agency about his Russia contacts, requested the delay during a stunning hearing in which U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan gave Flynn a blistering rebuke.

"Arguably you sold your country out," Sullivan told Flynn, who was flanked by his attorneys.

The judge added: "I can't hide my disgust, my disdain."

The official reason is that this decision gives Flynn could continue to sing to the Robert Mueller investigation. Both sides now have until March to file a status report with the court. But what more does Michael Flynn, who has met with Mueller 19 times already, have to offer?

Legal analysts say any extra information is always welcome but Flynn being sent back today is a message to all parties that the judge is in charge, no matter what prosecutors may recommend. Although Mueller recommended no jail time for Flynn, the judge dangled the possibility of incarceration.

The White House continues to stand in support of Flynn, “wishing him well” and attacking the FBI of questioning him wrongly and not allowing him to have a White House legal counsel with him while he sat down with the investigating team.

“It is so damn galling to hear the WH press secretary attacking the FBI for doing its job and catching a criminal in the act rather than being mad at the criminal who lied not just to the FBI, but supposedly also to people in the WH”, says Matthew Miller, formerly with the Department of Justice.

Last heard, Mueller is preparing more court filings that are expected to detail Trump associates' offers to roll back sanctions on Russia. Mueller and the judges both know what Trump does not - the potentially damning details behind the redactions in black ink. The lingering mystery here is similar to the central one Mueller is investigating: Why are/were Trump/Flynn so obsequious towards Russia and why is Trump continuing to praise Flynn while he calls Cohen a "rat"? The answers most likely lie behind those thick blotches of black ink.

Meanwhile, “the president’s children stand right in the line of Mueller’s investigative progress — they stand as the next dominos to fall,” is one ominous prediction getting a lot of play this week.

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Updated Date: Dec 19, 2018 09:05:44 IST