Top Democrats on Friday warned President Donald Trump and other Republicans that they must not interfere in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with Mueller.
Congressional investigations must also be allowed to continue, they say.
“The plea secured by Mueller may prompt the White House and its allies to seek to curtail congressional investigations, as President (Donald) Trump has attempted to do already, or end the Special Counsel’s work prematurely,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement. “Congress must make it clear that this would not be acceptable, that we will continue doing a diligent and thoughtful investigation, and do everything in our power to ensure the independence of the Special Counsel.”
In addition to Mueller’s work, the House and the Senate are both probing Russia interference in the election. A U.S. intelligence assessment released in January concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, to help Trump and to harm Hillary Clinton.
Schiff’s counterpart on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, said in his statement that Trump had already fired the FBI director, James Comey, and had pressured Attorney General Jeff Sessions and top U.S. intelligence officials to interfere with the investigation. Media outlets have reported that Trump is contemplating issuing pardons for his associates and firing Mueller, Warner said.
“Members of Congress from both parties must make clear that those actions would be fundamentally unacceptable and incompatible with the rule of law,” Warner, the committee's vice chairman, said.
Trump, a prolific tweeter, was silent in the immediate aftermath of Flynn’s guilty plea. An opportunity for reporters to question the president — a scheduled media event with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj during which reporters would have been expected to shout out questions — was canceled.
Trump’s lawyer, Ty Cobb, described Flynn as the national security advisor for only 25 days and a former Obama administration official, without noting his role in the Trump campaign or his firing by Obama. Flynn, an early and enthusiastic Trump supporter, resigned from the Trump administration in February reportedly because he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
“The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year,” Cobb said. “Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
One court document, the statement of the offense, notes that Flynn was directed by “a very senior member” of the presidential transition team to influence foreign governments, including Russia, to delay a United Nations vote on Israeli settlements or to defeat the resolution.
Two people familiar with the matter told NBC News Friday afternoon that the “very senior member” was Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who initially was given a broad role in the Trump White House, including working on peace in the Middle East.
The document says Flynn contacted the Russian ambassador, Sergey I. Kislyak, about the pending vote and asked that Russia vote against or delay the resolution, but later told the FBI falsely that he had only asked the countries’ positions on the vote.
Elsewhere, the document says that on Dec. 29, 2016, Flynn called a senior official of the presidential transition team at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, to discuss what to communicate to Kislyak about sanctions signed by then-President Barack Obama the day before. The court document does not identify which official Flynn spoke to.
Flynn falsely told FBI agents that he had not asked the ambassador to refrain from escalating the situation in response to the sanctions. But the document says that Flynn called Kislyak after his conversation with the transition official, then reported back to that official on the substance of his call with the ambassador. After another conversation with the ambassador, at the end of December, Flynn spoke with senior members of the transitional team about what was said.
Republicans had more muted responses to Flynn's plea.
“As far as I understand, there's nothing here where he was colluding with the Russians,” Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told NBC.
And Sen. Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia called lying to the FBI a “grave offense.”
The top Democrat in the House, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, asked for an outside independent investigation.
“The U.S. Congress has a duty to uphold justice, and to take measures to ensure that Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation proceed without interference from the White House,” Pelosi also said in a statement.
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the ranking member on the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement of Flynn’s guilty plea: “This shows a Trump associate negotiating with the Russians against U.S. policy and interests before Donald Trump took office and after it was announced that Russia had interfered in our election. That’s a stunning revelation and could be a violation of the Logan Act, which forbids unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with a foreign power.
Feinstein also argued for the probes to move forward unimpeded.
“This is just one more proof point that these investigations must be allowed to continue without interference,” she said.
“Republicans in Congress must stop shielding the President and join Democrats to take real, immediate action to counter Russian aggression and prevent further attacks on our democracy,” she said.
After news of Flynn’s guilty plea broke, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, Preet Bharara, who also was fired by Trump, tweeted: “The (admitted) charges against Michael Flynn make clear that he pleaded directly with the Russians not to retaliate for US sanctions, before Trump took office. Was that with Trump’s knowledge and at his request?”
And Comey tweeted a Bible verse: "'But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream' Amos 5:24."