The charge to which retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty may tell us a great deal about the Robert Mueller investigation.
The first question is, why did Flynn lie? People who lie to the FBI generally do so because, if they told the truth, they would be admitting to a crime. But the two conversations that Flynn falsely denied having were not criminal. He may have believed they were criminal but, if he did, he was wrong.
Consider his request to Sergey Kislyak, then Russian ambassador to the U.S., to delay or oppose a United Nations Security Council vote on an anti-Israel resolution that the outgoing Obama administration refused to veto. Not only was that request not criminal, it was the right thing to do. President Obama’s unilateral decision to change decades-long American policy by not vetoing a perniciously one-sided anti-Israel resolution was opposed by Congress and by most Americans. It was not good for America, for Israel or for peace. It was done out of Obama’s personal pique against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than on principle.
Many Americans of both parties, including me, urged the lame-duck Obama not to tie the hands of the president-elect by allowing the passage of a resolution that would make it more difficult to achieve a negotiated peace in the Middle East.
As the president-elect, Donald Trump was constitutionally and politically entitled to try to protect his ability to broker a fair peace between the Israelis and Palestinians by urging all members of the Security Council to vote against or delay the enactment of the resolution. The fact that such efforts to do the right thing did not succeed does not diminish the correctness of the effort. I wish it had succeeded. We would be in a better place today.
Some left-wing pundits, who know better, are trotting out the Logan Act, which, if it were the law, would prohibit private citizens (including presidents-elect) from negotiating with foreign governments. But this anachronistic law hasn’t been used for more than 200 years. Under the principle of desuetude — a legal doctrine that prohibits the selective resurrection of a statute that has not been used for many decades — it is dead-letter. Moreover, the Logan Act is unconstitutional insofar as it prohibits the exercise of free speech.
If it were good law, former Presidents Reagan and Carter would have been prosecuted: Reagan for negotiating with Iran’s ayatollahs when he was president-elect, to delay releasing the American hostages until he was sworn in; Carter for advising Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to reject former President Clinton’s peace offer in 2000-2001. Moreover, Jesse Jackson, Jane Fonda, Dennis Rodman, and others who have negotiated with North Korea and other rogue regimes would have gone to prison.
So there was nothing criminal about Flynn’s request of Kislyak, even if he were instructed to do so by higher-ups in the Trump transition team. The same is true of his discussions regarding sanctions. The president-elect is entitled to have different policies about sanctions and to have his transition team discuss them with Russian officials.
This is the way the New York Times has put it: “Mr. Flynn’s discussions with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, were part of a coordinated effort by Mr. Trump’s aides to create foreign policy before they were in power, documents released as part of Mr. Flynn’s plea agreement show. Their efforts undermined the existing policy of President Barack Obama and flouted a warning from a senior Obama administration official to stop meddling in foreign affairs before the inauguration.”
If that characterization is accurate, it demonstrates conclusively that the Flynn conversations were political and not criminal. Flouting a warning from the Obama administration to stop meddling may be a political sin (though some would call it a political virtue), but it most assuredly is not a crime.
So why did Flynn lie about these conversations, and were his lies even material to Mueller’s criminal investigation if they were not about crimes?
The second question is, why did Mueller charge Flynn only with lying? The last thing a prosecutor ever wants to do is to charge a key witness with lying.
A witness such as Flynn who has admitted he lied — whether or not to cover up a crime — is a tainted witness who is unlikely to be believed by jurors who know he’s made a deal to protect himself and his son. They will suspect that he is not only “singing for his supper” but that he may be “composing” as well — that is, telling the prosecutor what he wants to hear, even if it is exaggerated or flat-out false. A “bought” witness knows that the “better” his testimony, the sweeter the deal he will get. That’s why prosecutors postpone the sentencing until after the witness has testified, because experience has taught them that you can’t “buy” a witness; you can only “rent" them for as long as you have the sword of Damocles hanging over them.
So, despite the banner headlines calling the Flynn guilty plea a “thunderclap,” I think it may be a show of weakness on the part of the special counsel rather than a sign of strength. So far he has had to charge potential witnesses with crimes that bear little or no relationship to any possible crimes committed by current White House incumbents. Mueller would have much preferred to indict Flynn for conspiracy or some other crime directly involving other people, but he apparently lacks the evidence to do so.
I do not believe he will indict anyone under the Logan Act. If he were to do so, that would be unethical and irresponsible. Nor do I think he will charge President Trump with any crimes growing out of the president’s exercise of his constitutional authority to fire the director of the FBI or to ask him not to prosecute Flynn.
The investigation will probably not end quickly, but it may end with not a thunderclap, but several whimpers.
Alan Dershowitz (@AlanDersh) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. He is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law, Emeritus, at Harvard Law School and author of Trumped up! How Criminalizing Politics is Dangerous to Democracy. This article was originally published by The Hill.
If you would like to write an op-ed for the Washington Examiner, please read our guidelines on submissions here.