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Late last month, fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — under investigation by federal prosecutors, with his lawyer seeking immunity for him to testify to Congress — met with a small group of loyalists at a restaurant in the northern Virginia suburbs.
Saddled with steep legal bills, Flynn wanted to reconnect with old friends and talk about potential future business opportunities. But one overriding question among those present were his views on the president who had fired him from his national security advisor post.
Flynn left little doubt about the answer. Not only did he remain loyal to President Trump; he indicated that he and the president were still in communication. “I just got a message from the president to stay strong,” Flynn said after the meal was over, according to two sources who are close to Flynn and are familiar with the conversation, which took place on April 25.
The comment came at the end of an especially difficult day for Flynn, during which his legal woes appeared to grow: Two congressmen — House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings, D-Md. — after reviewing classified Pentagon documents, had just accused Flynn of failing to disclose foreign income from Russia and Turkey when he sought to renew his security clearance.
The sources who spoke to Yahoo News say Flynn did not indicate how Trump had sent the message —whether it was a written note, a text message, a phone call or some other method. (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.) But the fact that the two men have stayed in contact could raise additional questions about the president’s reported request to now former FBI Director James Comey to shut down a federal investigation of the retired Army general.
Democrats and some legal commentators say that Trump’s request, as recorded by Comey in a memo — “I hope you can let this go” — could amount to an effort to obstruct a federal investigation that might ultimately implicate the president himself. Any ongoing contacts between Trump and Flynn are likely to be among the matters closely scrutinized by Robert Mueller, the ex-FBI director named late Wednesday as the new Justice Department special counsel in charge of the Russia investigation.
But friends of Flynn insist the president’s comment could also be viewed not as a deliberate effort to obstruct justice but a personal plea — however ill-advised — on behalf of a down-on-his luck friend who had stood by Trump throughout his campaign and is now ostracized by former associates and struggling to find new consulting work. “Basically what [Trump] was saying is, ‘Can you take it easy on my buddy?,’” said one friend of Flynn who has stayed in touch with him.
Either way, the sources say, Flynn has given no indication that he has any plans to turn on Trump to cut himself a deal for leniency. Speculation that he might do so was rampant in late March when his lawyer, Robert Kelner, confirmed that Flynn would be willing to be interviewed by the Senate Intelligence Committee, but only in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Kelner added in a public statement that his client “certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it.” (Kelner did not respond to a request for comment on this story. Senate intelligence committee chair Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., told reporters today that Flynn’s lawyer has indicated his client may not honor the panel’s subpoena for documents relating to its Russia investigation.)
But Flynn, in multiple talks with friends and former associates, has repeatedly dismissed the idea that his story might include giving evidence against the president. “Thank God Trump is president,” Flynn said after he was fired, according to one of his friends. “Can you imagine if Hillary had won and what she would be doing?”
“These are two men who bonded on the campaign trail,” said another close associate of Flynn — who, like others quoted in this story, asked not to be publicly identified. “Flynn always believed that Trump would win. They were together so much during the campaign that Flynn became family. There has been zero sign of anything but supreme loyalty.”
That close bond — described by one friend as brothers “in the foxhole” — would appear to explain why Trump hired him as national security advisor even after, as the New York Times reported Wednesday, Flynn notified the transition team’s chief lawyer, Don McGahn, that he was under criminal investigation. That conversation took place as early as January 4, according to the Times, which also reported that Flynn believes the FBI investigation — including recent subpoenas from a federal grand jury in northern Virginia — was instigated by former Obama administration officials after Trump rejected President Barack Obama’s advice not to hire Flynn as his national security advisor.
Friends and associates who spoke to Yahoo News say Flynn has also blamed his troubles on unidentified former Clinton aides who he believes pushed for him to be investigated because of his prominent role during the campaign, including his speech at the Republican National Convention when he led delegates in a chant of, “Lock her up!”
One example he has cited is the FBI’s apparent focus on his initial failure to register with the Justice Department as an agent of the Turkish government under the Foreign Agents Registration Act while he was serving as the Trump campaign’s principal national security advisor. Flynn had registered with Congress last August as a lobbyist for an obscure Dutch firm, Inovo BV, headed by a businessman, Ekim Alptekin, with close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Only belatedly, after the FBI investigation began, did he file in March a far more detailed report with the Justice Department, disclosing that he had signed a contract for more than $500,000 to lobby on behalf of Turkish government interests. His efforts included running a campaign to discredit an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, and to lobby for his extradition to Turkey. The Erdoğan government, which blames Gulen for orchestrating a failed coup last summer, is seeking to return him for trial.
As Flynn has argued to friends, the Podesta Group — a firm headed by Tony Podesta, the brother of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta — also recently retroactively registered with the Justice Department for work it had done between 2012 and 2014 for a pro-Russian political party named the Party of Regions, which paid it a reported $1.2 million. (The party had long been a client of Paul Manafort, who later became Trump’s campaign manager.)
As Flynn has told friends, he believes there is a double standard in his being investigated because of his Turkish contract while there is no indication the Podesta Group is under similar scrutiny. Similarly, Flynn has suggested other potential legal issues he is facing — such as his failure to disclose a $45,000 contract he had for a speaking appearance in Moscow with RT, the Russian government-funded television network, when he was seeking to renew his security clearance — was a paperwork oversight rather than a deliberate effort to conceal payments from a foreign government.
As for the actions that ultimately got him fired — his conversation last December with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and his untruthful denial to Vice President Mike Pence that the two of them discussed the possible lifting of sanctions — Flynn has suggested that he was only seeking to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to improve relations with Moscow. Based on the accounts provided to Yahoo News, Flynn has not said whether Trump directed or authorized him to reach out to the Russian ambassador — a key unanswered question in the probe. But one of the friends said Flynn has alluded to multiple meetings and conversations with the Russian ambassador. Reuters reported Thursday that Flynn and other Trump advisors had at least 18 phone calls and emails with Russian officials, including Kislyak, during the last 7 months of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Flynn also has emphatically rejected the idea he has any regrets about his short-lived job in the administration, given all the legal problems it has caused him. “No,” he told a friend. “I did it for the country.”
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