Why Flynn's guilty plea won't bring down Trump

As long as he is willing it facilitate the GOP agenda, he's nearly untouchable

President Trump.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

During the Republican National Convention last July, former Lt. General Michael Flynn, who would go on to become President Trump's national security adviser after the election, delivered a blistering speech denouncing Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. "If I did a 10th of what [Clinton] did, I would be in jail today," he thundered, leading the crowd in a chant of "lock her up." Apparently, this was projection.

On Friday, Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump's inauguration. But that was only the beginning of the story. On Saturday, Trump decided to throw gasoline on the fire by appearing to admit obstructing justice. And yet, despite all this, it's unlikely that the Flynn revelations will do any lasting damage to the Trump administration. Congress needs Trump to help pass its agenda, starting with its massive tax bill that passed the Senate early Saturday morning.

Flynn was able to secure a plea bargain on only one count of lying to the FBI. This relatively lenient deal is a strong indication that Special Counsel Robert Mueller believes Flynn has useful information to offer against more powerful people. In particular, Flynn seems to have been receiving direction from Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner. There is a strong possibility that, at a minimum, Flynn has damaging information to reveal about one of the most powerful figures within the Trump administration.

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None of this is good news for the Trump administration, but we don't know the full implications of Flynn's plea yet. This didn't stop Trump from trying to make things worse. On Saturday, Trump — or at least someone with access to Trump's official Twitter account — tweeted that Trump "had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI."

Trump, you may remember, ridiculously claimed that he fired FBI Director James Comey over his mishandling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton's private email server. This was always a farcical pretext — according to Comey, he had pressured the deposed FBI director to back off of his investigation of Flynn's contacts with Russian officials, which is a much more plausible explanation for Comey's firing. Trump is now admitting he knew Flynn lied to the FBI when he first told Comey to stop investigating Flynn, and then fired Comey. That is evidence that he intended to obstruct justice by firing Comey.

Later Saturday afternoon, Trump's lawyer (and former Pete Rose investigator) John Dowd took responsibility for the tweet. The idea that Trump's lawyer drafted a self-incriminating tweet with no apparent upside while perfectly emulating Trump's tone is not particularly plausible. Why would an expensive, experienced attorney approve an unnecessary tweet so damaging to his client's interests? But even assuming this is true, rather than a hastily conceived cover story, it doesn't help Trump's case much. As Ian Millhiser of Think Progress observes, "a vetted statement drafted by counsel that admits to a crime is much more incriminating than a tweet tossed off by a suspect with a well-known reputation for saying things that aren't true."

So Mueller seems to be be building a serious case against the Trump administration, and Trump is all but conceding that there's not just smoke but a real fire. But there remains a serious problem: The remedy against Trump has to be political, and it's still clear that there will be no will in Congress to bring the hammer down on Trump by initiating the impeachment process. Instead, they'll turn a blind eye.

On top of that, It's hard to imagine at this point that Mueller will be able to complete his investigation. Trump can have Mueller removed, and he can also issue mass pardons to anyone he implicates. Normally, a president wouldn't do this because he fears impeachment (or being forced to resign, like Richard Nixon.)

But this isn't 1974. Congressional Republicans have made it clear that they will not act to constrain Trump as long as he can be a useful instrument to pass their agenda. And early Saturday, the Senate passed their tax legislation, which Republicans have been seeking to do since Trump's surprising victory. The omnibus bill is essentially a grab bag of awful Republican policy — it doesn't just massively cut taxes for the wealthy, it will take health care away from millions of people and raise taxes for many middle-class families, particularly those in states with decent social services. Trump will sign the bill when it passes in its final form, and that's all House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) care about.

In other words, Trump can almost certainly still act with impunity because he is willing it facilitate a substantively awful and incredibly unpopular agenda. The Flynn plea probably won't change this.

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Scott Lemieux

Scott Lemieux is a professor of political science at the College of Saint Rose in Albany, N.Y., with a focus on the Supreme Court and constitutional law. He is a frequent contributor to the American Prospect and blogs for Lawyers, Guns and Money.