Trump officials were warned about Mike Flynn at least 6 separate times before firing him
- Top officials on the Trump transition team and in President Donald Trump's administration were repeatedly warned about hiring Michael Flynn.
- They were warned that Flynn could be subject to blackmail by Russians due to his conversations with the then-Russian ambassador.
- Special counsel Robert Mueller is examining why it took so long to fire Flynn.
President Donald Trump's transition team — and, later, his nascent administration — was warned at least six separate times about former national security adviser Michael Flynn's potential conflicts of interest and compromising conversations with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
But Flynn was not asked to step down until February 13, nearly a month into his tenure as the country's senior-most national security official.
That timeline has become a focus for special counsel Robert Mueller, who is examining why it took 18 days for the White House to fire Flynn after a stark warning from former acting Attorney General Sally Yates. She told the White House counsel that Flynn had purportedly lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his calls with Kislyak.
That was far from the first time, however, that an official had urged Trump and his advisers to rethink bringing Flynn into the White House.
Yates was at least the fourth person, by January 26, to sound the alarm. And she warned White House counsel Don McGahn about Flynn in two separate meetings and a phone call before she was fired on January 30 for unrelated reasons.
The first warning came from President Barack Obama on November 10. A former Obama White House official confirmed to Business Insider on Monday that Obama cautioned Trump against appointing Flynn "based on the president's experience with Flynn in his administration."
"President Obama underscored with President-Elect Trump how important a role the NSA is — and how it demanded a serious person with sound judgment, impeccable credentials, and unimpeachable character," the official said. "In other words, 44 [Obama] relied heavily on his National Security Advisors and wanted to convey how critical the job had been in our administration."
White House special counsel Ty Cobb characterized Flynn as a "former Obama administration official" following Flynn's guilty plea earlier this month. Trump has pointed to the fact that Flynn's security clearance was renewed in January 2016 as evidence that Flynn was once trusted by high-level officials.
But the Trump White House has failed to note that Obama fired Flynn as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014 — and that his security clearance would have been renewed at the DIA level rather than by the upper echelons of the Obama White House.
Former national security adviser Susan Rice noted in April that the renewal of Flynn's security clearance by the DIA would have been "a very separate thing ... from the vetting that goes into the appointment of any senior White House official, or any senior administration official."
The vetting of Flynn by the Trump White House, by contrast, either failed to detect or overlooked the fact that Flynn had been lobbying on behalf of Turkish government interests throughout the latter half of 2016. Flynn also reportedly brought with him into the White House a private project he had been working on to build nuclear power plants in the Middle East.
A top congressman's warnings
Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer said in March, just after Flynn registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, that Trump had not been aware that Flynn had been paid to lobby for Turkish interests in the months before the US election.
But both The Daily Caller and Politico reported on November 14 that Flynn's consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group Inc., had been hired to lobby for Turkish interests. And on November 18, just over a week after Obama warned Trump about Flynn, Rep. Elijah Cummings sent Pence a letter requesting more information about the potential conflicts of interest posed by Flynn's lobbying work.
"Recent news reports have revealed that Lt. Gen. Flynn was receiving classified briefings during the presidential campaign while his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, Inc., was being paid to lobby the U.S. Government on behalf of a foreign government's interests," said Cummings, the ranking Democratic member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
Cummings told Business Insider through his office at the time that he believes "the problems that have occurred with Lt. Gen. Flynn" could have been avoided had Pence heeded his warnings. Pence headed Trump's transition team, but he has insisted that he did not know about Flynn's lobbying work or conversations with the Russian ambassador prior to Flynn's ouster in February.
Chris Christie's warnings
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who led the Trump transition team before his abrupt dismissal on November 11, said recently that he believes he was fired largely because he warned transition officials against hiring Flynn as national security adviser.
Two people familiar with transition team deliberations told Politico last month that Christie expressed concern about Flynn being "in a leadership position."
"We were active in the effort to stymie his advances,” one former transition official told the publication. “But Trump liked him. It seemed to me that they were going to take care of him.”
Flynn apparently crashed a meeting at Trump Tower in the days following the election in which Christie presented his suggestions for top national security roles in the incoming administration. He told the group — which included Ivanka Trump, Steve Bannon, and then-Sen. Jeff Sessions — that he wanted to be either secretary of state, secretary of defense, or national security adviser, according to Politico.
He was ultimately given the national security role in large part, reports suggest, because of his loyalty to Trump during the campaign.
"Suffice to say, I had serious misgivings, which I think have been confirmed by the fact that he pled guilty to a felony in federal court," Christie said at a press conference last week.
Asked who he would have appointed instead of Flynn, Christie replied: "It's in about four volumes of books that were apparently thrown out the day I was terminated."
Bannon, the former White House chief strategist who was then a top transition adviser, and Flynn "celebrated" Christie's dismissal "by tossing binders full of potential personnel picks, carefully culled by Christie’s team, into trash bins with a sense of ceremonial glee," according to Politico.
Christie said last week that he thinks "what folks who were involved in that transition have now painfully learned at the expense of the country is that experience matters."
Sally Yates' warnings
Yates, the former acting attorney general, told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee earlier this year that she had had "two in-person meetings and one phone call" with the White House counsel in January to warn about Flynn's contact with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, during the election.
Yates said she called McGahn with "a very sensitive matter" that she needed to discuss with him in person. She and another career Justice Department official then traveled to the White House to meet with McGahn and one of his associates in his office, where she told them that there had been press accounts related to Flynn's conduct that the DOJ "knew to be untrue."
"We told them how we had this information, how we had acquired it, and how we knew it was untrue," Yates recalled.
While he was vice president-elect, Pence insisted in an interview with CBS that Flynn and Kislyak "did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia" — a statement that turned out to be untrue and that set off alarm bells at the Justice Department.
Yates said the Russians "also knew what Flynn had done, and that he had misled the vice president and others."
"This was a problem, because the Russians likely had proof of this information, which created a situation where he could be blackmailed by the Russians," she said. We told them we were giving them this information so they could take action. McGahn asked me if Flynn should be fired. I said that wasn't my call."
Yates met with McGahn again on January 27, when McGahn asked her why the DOJ cared if "one White House official lied to another." He also wanted to know if the Department of Justice was pursuing a criminal case against Flynn, and expressed concern that firing Flynn could "interfere with the FBI taking action against" him.
McGahn also asked Yates to see the DOJ's evidence of Flynn's conversations with Kislyak.
The FBI interviewed Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak on January 24 as part of its probe into Russia's election interference. That is when Flynn apparently misled the federal agents, telling them that the issue of US sanctions on Russia had not been discussed when in fact it had.
Yates said she could not disclose to McGahn "how Flynn did" in that initial FBI interview because the investigation was ongoing. But she indicated to him that Flynn told the FBI the same thing he had told Mike Pence.
Yates called McGahn again on January 30 — hours before she was fired by Trump for refusing to enforce his first travel ban — to tell him that he could come over to the DOJ to review the details of Flynn's communication with Kislyak.
Neither McGahn nor his lawyer have returned requests for comment about whether McGahn ever took the DOJ up on that offer. Yates testified that she didn't know if they ever did, because she was fired shortly thereafter.
Yates told Democratic Sen. Chris Coons that, in the course of the meetings, "Mr. McGahn demonstrated that he understood that this was serious." But she said she didn't know if the White House took any additional steps to restrict Flynn's access to sensitive or classified information.
"If they didn't take any action," she said, "that would certainly be concerning."
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