Flynn kept FBI interview concealed from White House, Trump

WASHINGTON — A year ago today, Donald Trump’s newly sworn–in national security adviser, Michael Flynn, met privately in his West Wing office with FBI investigators interested in his communications with Russia's ambassador, without a lawyer or the knowledge of the president and other top White House officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Flynn's FBI interview on Jan. 24, 2017, set in motion an extraordinary sequence of events unparalleled for the first year of a U.S. presidency. A national security adviser was fired after 24 days on the job, an acting attorney general was fired ten days after the president took office, an FBI director was allegedly pressured by the president to let go an investigation into the ousted national security adviser, and then eventually fired.

An attorney general recused himself from a federal investigation into Russia's meddling in a U.S. election and possible collusion with the sitting president's campaign, and a special counsel was appointed.

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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
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Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn
National security adviser General Michael Flynn delivers a statement daily briefing at the White House in Washington U.S., February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at the Trump Tower for meetings with US President-elect Donald Trump, in New York on November 17, 2016.

(EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Retired United States Army lieutenant general Michael T. Flynn introduces Republican Presidential nominee Donald J. Trump before he delivered a speech at The Union League of Philadelphia on September 7, 2016 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Trump spoke about his plans to build up the military if elected. Recent national polls show the presidential race is tightening with two months until the election.

(Photo by Mark Makela/Getty Images)

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, at podium, and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump attend a campaign event with veterans at the Trump International Hotel on Pennsylvania Ave., NW, where Trump stated he believes President Obama was born in the United States, September 16, 2016.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 01: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer (L) yields the briefing room podium to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn February 1, 2017 in Washington, DC. Flynn said the White House is 'officially putting Iran on notice' for a recent missile test and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, prepares to testify at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Dirksen Building titled 'Current and Future Worldwide Threats,' featuring testimony by he and James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence.

(Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (C) arrives prior to a joint news conference between Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 13, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn boards Air Force One at West Palm Beach International airport in West Palm Beach, Florida U.S., February 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
National security adviser General Michael Flynn arrives to deliver a statement during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington U.S., February 1, 2017. Picture taken February 1, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (L) arrives at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S., February 10, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 10: (AFP OUT) White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn (R) walks down the West Wing Colonnade following a bilateral meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe February 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Trump and Abe are expected to discuss many issues, including trade and security ties and will hold a joint press confrence later in the day. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ATLANTA, GA - FEBRUARY 02: (L-R) SCAD Dramatic writing professor Chris Auer, Producer Sandra Leviton, Executive producer and writer Michael Flynn, Tv literary agent Jeff Greenberg and Literary manager and producer Kaila York speak on stage during the 'Inside the Writers Room' event on Day One of aTVfest 2017 presented by SCAD on February 2, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for SCAD)
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (ret.), National Security Advisor Designate speaks during a conference on the transition of the US Presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump at the US Institute Of Peace in Washington DC, January 10, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, U.S. national security advisor, attends a swearing in ceremony of White House senior staff in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017. Trump today mocked protesters who gathered for large demonstrations across the U.S. and the world on Saturday to signal discontent with his leadership, but later offered a more conciliatory tone, saying he recognized such marches as a hallmark of our democracy. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Michael Flynn walks out after a morning worship service on Inauguration day at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington, DC on Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Attorney General nominee Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) (R), talks with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn inside of the inaugural parade reviewing stand in front of the White House on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. Donald Trump was sworn in as the nation's 45th president today. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, White House national security adviser-designate, center, stands in an elevator at Trump Tower in New York, U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017. Donald Trump is slated to meet with AT&T Inc.'s top executives on Thursday to discuss the company's proposed $85.4 billion bid for Time Warner Inc., according to people familiar with the matter. The president-elect has said he opposes the deal. Photographer: John Taggart/Bloomberg via Getty Images
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 20: Donald Trump's National Security Adviser Gen. Michael T. Flynn (R) arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC. In today's inauguration ceremony Donald J. Trump becomes the 45th president of the United States. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn (ret.) and National Security Advisor Designate and Ambassador Susan Rice, National Security Advisor during a ceremonial passing of authority while participating in a conference on the transition of the US Presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump at the US Institute Of Peace in Washington DC, January 10, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
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The developments ensnared the president in an obstruction of justice inquiry, which resulted in his top intelligence and law enforcement chiefs cooperating in some form with that probe.

By the end of 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller’s team had spoken with Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, Mike Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, former FBI Director James Comey, and numerous members of Trump’s campaign and White House inner circle. Flynn pleaded guilty last month to lying to the FBI during his January 24 interview and is cooperating with the Russia investigation.

NBC News also has learned that former acting attorney general Sally Yates, who informed the White House about Flynn’s interview two days after it took place, has cooperated with the special counsel. CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who was allegedly asked by Trump to lean on Comey to drop his investigation, has also been interviewed, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

One person familiar with the matter described Pompeo, Coats and Rogers as "peripheral witnesses" to the Comey firing. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who played a key role in Comey's departure and was a top adviser on the Trump campaign, was interviewed by Mueller last week as the investigation inches closer to Mueller's team possibly questioning the president himself.

Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon is expected to meet with Mueller’s team by January 31, according to a person familiar with the discussions.

Unresolved is whether Trump will voluntarily agree to be interviewed by Mueller. So far, according to two people familiar with the discussions, Trump’s team has not reached an agreement with the special counsel for their client to meet with him.

Flynn's tenure in the White House and his firing by Trump are among the topics Mueller’s team has been asking witnesses to discuss, and they are likely to be part of any questioning of the president. Separately, Mueller is expected to want to ask Trump about his firing of Comey. The president told NBC News last year that his decision was connected to Comey’s dogged pursuit of potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump has repeatedly called the investigation a "hoax" and a "witch-hunt."

Two people familiar with the matter said Trump was unaware that Flynn had spoken with the FBI until two days after the interview took place. An attorney for Flynn did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

A brief phone call from the office of Andrew McCabe, the deputy FBI director, to a scheduler for Flynn on January 24 set the interview in motion, according to people familiar with the matter. The scheduler was told the FBI wanted to speak with Flynn later that day, these people said, and the meeting was placed on Flynn’s schedule. The scheduler didn't ask the reason for the meeting, and the FBI didn't volunteer it, one person familiar with the matter said.

Later that day, two FBI agents arrived at the White House to speak with Flynn. A lawyer for the National Security Council typically would be informed of such a meeting and be present for it, one person familiar with the procedures said. But that didn't happen in this instance, and Flynn didn't include his own personal lawyer, two people said. He met with the two federal agents alone, according to these people.

"No one knew that any of this was happening," said another senior White House official who was there at the time.

"Apparently it was not clear to Flynn that this was about his personal conduct," another White House official said. "So he didn't think of bringing his own lawyer."

White House counsel Don McGahn was the first senior official to learn of Flynn's interview during a meeting on January 26 with Yates in which she warned him that Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other top Trump officials about his conversation with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and could be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government.

McGahn has sat for two days of interviews with Mueller's team, according to a person familiar with the matter, including one interview that was rescheduled after Flynn’s plea deal was announced the day it was supposed to take place. Yates spoke extensively with Mueller’s team last year, according to people familiar with the matter.

McGahn briefed Trump, Bannon and White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, who left the White House last summer and also has spoken with Mueller's team, on his meeting with Yates that same day including the news of Flynn's FBI interview, people familiar with the matter said. Yates has testified before Congress that McGahn asked her how Flynn did in his FBI interview, to which she said she replied that she could not comment on it.

McGahn did not later ask Flynn if he lied to the FBI, one person familiar with the matter said. This person said it was unclear if Flynn intended to lie and that McGahn did not conclude that Flynn had lied to the FBI until after he had been fired. It was at that time in late winter or early spring that the White House received a request from the FBI for phone records and other documents related to Flynn that McGahn and other top officials concluded he had lied in his interview and was otherwise under investigation, this person said.

The year since Flynn's FBI interview has seen only escalated tensions between Trump and his Justice Department.

In recent weeks Trump has taken aim at McCabe, whose office first arranged Flynn’s FBI interview.

This week, White House spokesman Raj Shah fanned reports of pressure from the White House to fire McCabe by saying in a statement that Trump "believes politically-motivated senior leaders" of the FBI "have tainted the agency's reputation for unbiased pursuit of justice" and that the new director he "appointed" will "clean up the misconduct at the highest levels of the FBI."

And one of the two FBI agents who interviewed Flynn was Peter Strzok, whom Mueller removed from the Russia investigation last summer after the Justice Department’s inspector general's office found he'd written text messages to a colleague criticizing Trump, according to people familiar with the matter.

For Trump opponents, his war with the FBI is an effort to undermine the Russia investigation. For Trump and his allies, he’s battling a conspiracy within the top ranks of the Justice Department to undermine his presidency.

Flynn was fired as Trump’s national security adviser on February 13, after it became public that he had lied to Pence about his conversation with Kislyak.

The next day Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, according to Comey’s testimony before Congress. Trump has denied asking Comey to let the Flynn investigation go.

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