Michael Flynn, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser, is scheduled to appear in federal court Tuesday morning for the first time since pleading guilty seven months ago, as a judge asks when the case will be ready to move to sentencing.
Flynn admitted in December to lying to the FBI about contacts with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, becoming one of the first Trump associates to cooperate – and the highest-ranking official charged – in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Flynn’s mere presence in court in Washington could serve to puncture ongoing speculation by conservative media that Mueller’s case against Flynn is falling apart and that the former national security adviser may withdraw his guilty plea.
Flynn has become an important exhibit for some Trump supporters who argue that the former general was mistreated by the FBI as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy to undermine the president.
Some Republicans in Congress have been questioning whether Flynn was pressured unfairly to plead guilty. In May, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, complained in a letter that former FBI Director James Comey had told the committee in 2017 that the agents who interviewed Flynn about his interactions with the Russian ambassador “did not believe [Flynn] intentionally lied” about the conversation.
Flynn has filed nothing in advance of the hearing to suggest that he has had any second thoughts about his plea and given no indication that he will raise any concerns during Tuesday’s hearing.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan of Washington set Tuesday’s hearing after defense and prosecutors jointly asked him on June 29 to begin sentencing preparations, while at the same time saying it still was too soon to set sentencing given the “status” of the ongoing investigation.
Sullivan asked why he should break with his usual practice, which is to set a sentencing date at the same time he launches the pre-sentencing review. Apparently dissatisfied with both sides’ response, Sullivan directed Flynn to come to court Tuesday.
The pre-sentencing report is an investigation into whether a person’s background may warrant a harsher or more lenient sentence, takes 70 to 90 days to prepare and is a necessary step in the federal system before sentencing. However, prosecutors are not required to set a sentencing date even after the report is complete.
In a joint reply to the judge, prosecutor Brandon Van Grack and Flynn attorney Robert Kelner had said that although they still wanted to postpone sentencing and could update Sullivan again about timing on Aug. 24, they had asked to launch the pre-sentence investigation because it would eventually help the court schedule move more quickly.
Prosecutors typically postpone sentencing for witnesses until their cooperation – including testimony before a grand jury or at trial – no longer is needed, and routinely do so jointly with cooperating defendants in submitting periodic status reports with a sentencing judge.
The special counsel’s office and Flynn have postponed three times so far – not unusual in major investigations – but the June postponement drew heightened scrutiny as the president’s legal team weighed whether Trump will sit for an interview with the special counsel’s office.
Mueller’s office for months has sought to question the president about events that led to his decisions to oust Flynn and Comey, including scrutinizing possible efforts by Trump or others to impede the special counsel’s probe, The Washington Post has reported.
In Flynn’s case, neither party in court filings gave any sign of the state of talks with the president’s lawyers.
Flynn resigned from his top White House post in February 2017 after the White House said that he misled Vice President Pence and other administration officials about his contacts with Kislyak.
His plea revealed that he was in touch with senior Trump transition officials before and after his communications with the ambassador. The pre-inauguration communications with Kislyak involved efforts to blunt Obama administration policy decisions – on sanctions on Russia and a United Nations resolution on Israel – potential violations of a rarely enforced law.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Spencer S. Hsu, Rosalind S. Helderman