Tuesday’s sentencing hearing for Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, took an unexpected twist after his attempts to shift blame to the government backfired. After Flynn retracted his allegations of “entrapment” by FBI agents into lying and (re)confirmed his guilty plea, Judge Emmet Sullivan offered a startling rebuke of Flynn: “I want to be frank with you, this crime is very serious,” the judge said. “I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain for your criminal offense.”
Lost in the circus around Flynn’s sentencing — which is delayed until March — is the unsolved mystery of why Flynn sat across from two FBI agents and attempted to deceive them to begin with. Put simply, why did he lie?
As former special agents who used to conduct national security investigations, we have encountered deceptive subjects and know that their reasons for lying are worth exploring. Flynn’s motivation for deceiving investigators remains one of the most significant unanswered questions in special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation. Given that Flynn has sat for 19 interviews since pleading guilty, Mueller certainly knows the answers. But for the rest of us, this piece of the puzzle can shed light on the magnitude of the threat Flynn posed to national security.
Flynn would have been aware, given his former position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, of the capabilities of the U.S. intelligence community as they relate to eavesdropping on officials from hostile foreign governments. He would have known that his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak would have likely been intercepted. Yet there was a reason he opted for deception. Did he lie to the FBI because he saw no other way out of the same lies he had been peddling, or was he lying for a more sinister reason?
In court filings, Mueller indicated that Flynn began concocting his lies well before his Jan. 24, 2017, sit-down with FBI agents. Indeed, the day after The Washington Post reported on his intercepted communications with the Russians, Flynn instructed a member of the Trump transition team to contact the newspaper and convey false information about the substance of his communications. Over the next two weeks, Flynn continued to lie to members of the transition group, including Vice President Pence. According to the sentencing memo filed by Mueller’s team, the impression of the interviewing agents was that Flynn seemed “relaxed and jocular” when he met with them, not nervous or deceptive. It is possible that by the time he finally sat down with FBI special agents in a West Wing conference room, he had already practiced and perfected the lie to such a degree that he felt confident in his ability to bamboozle investigators with false information.
Having woven such a tangled web with so many people, it is also possible Flynn simply saw no way out. In his second sentencing memo, Mueller emphasized that Flynn was “committed” to his lie. Certainly, after consistently deceiving those around him — including the media, his peers and the vice president — admitting to deception would mortally wound his reputation and risk him being terminated from the most powerful position he would likely ever attain. Perhaps a mixture of hubris and fear drove his decision to lie rather than take responsibility for his actions.
The other possibility is the nightmare scenario for the nation: that Flynn was a foreign agent, acting at the direction of a foreign government while he was a senior member of an incoming U.S. presidential administration. By the time of the retired lieutenant general’s telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador, he had already raised eyebrows throughout the intelligence community on questionable relationships he was building with foreign strongmen in pursuit of his business consulting venture. He had not only accepted thousands of dollars from Russian firms with suspect business practices, but had traveled to Moscow to speak at a gala for a Russian propagandist television network and was pictured hobnobbing with none other than President Vladimir Putin.
We know Flynn knowingly ran afoul of the law by failing to register as an agent of a foreign power regarding his business dealings with Turkey — he registered retroactively in March 2017. It would be consistent, therefore, for him to attempt to hide any nefarious connections with the Kremlin. From all available evidence, he is simply not an honest person. We know from our work conducting national security investigations that unscrupulous actors who are willing to break the law while supporting one hostile foreign regime likely wouldn’t have qualms sidling up to others if the price was right.
Was there more to Russia and Flynn that we simply don’t know about? The answer to this question is crucial because Flynn was responsible for shaping Trump’s foreign policy stance throughout his campaign. He was also selected to be the top official charged with identifying and addressing the most significant threats to our national security from foreign countries — including Russia’s attacks on our democracy. If Flynn was acting at Russia’s direction, he would be predisposed to putting the interests of a foreign adversary above those of our own nation. In short, the safety of the United States would have been entrusted to someone whose loyalties lay elsewhere.
The answers to these important questions would also help us ascertain whether Trump was complicit in choosing as his national security adviser someone who was inherently corrupt and disloyal. President Barack Obama had warned Trump before assuming office not to hire Flynn as his national security adviser. After Flynn lied to federal agents, acting attorney general Sally Yates also urgently warned the White House that Flynn might be compromised by the Russians, to no avail. It wasn’t until the Post reported later on Yates’ warning that the White House eventually sent Flynn packing. Trump subsequently tried to get the FBI to stop investigating Flynn — and even fired FBI Director James Comey when that attempt was unsuccessful.
Although much of the attention paid henceforth to Flynn will likely focus on his ultimate decision to cooperate with Mueller and help investigators, we cannot lose sight of his underlying motivation for lying to the FBI. There is a reason he was untruthful. At best, he was simply unable to sustain the endless lies he was telling to those around him. But with mounting evidence of his shady practices with hostile foreign regimes and his possible last-ditch effort to cover his tracks despite reported intercepts of his calls with the Kremlin, we cannot discount the nightmare scenario that Sullivan himself thundered to Flynn in court: “Arguably, you sold out your country.”
Campbell is a CNN analyst covering national security issues. He previously served as an FBI supervisory special agent conducting investigations and as special assistant to FBI Director James Comey. Rangappa is a senior lecturer at the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs at Yale University and a former FBI agent.