Former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s guilty plea on Friday to one charge of lying to FBI agents eclipsed a week of relative successes for President Trump and raised questions about how the White House would respond to the first criminal charges against someone who once worked in the West Wing.
During a week that saw President Trump win a legal battle over control of a federal agency, successfully advance one of his top legislative priorities, and score an optics win by hosting a Christmas party that some reporters boycotted, Flynn’s indictment on one count of making false statements to investigators still emerged as the most explosive story of the past five days.
White House officials remained tight-lipped about the news that Flynn had misrepresented to the FBI the nature of his conversations in Dec. 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Only the president’s personal lawyer, Ty Cobb, spoke publicly about the criminal charge, saying in a statement on Friday that “nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
Cobb, like other White House allies, emphasized the fact that Trump dismissed Flynn for the same lie the former Defense Intelligence Agency director told the FBI about the subject of his calls with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Trump requested Flynn’s resignation in February after reports surfaced that suggested Flynn had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about whether he had raised the issue of sanctions against Russia during his call with Kislyak.
A source close to the White House told the Washington Examiner that the administration’s defense against the latest controversy would likely involve highlighting that Flynn lied to both the FBI and Pence about the same issue.
“He lied to the [vice president], and Trump fired Flynn,” said a source close to the White House. “This was always going to be a further issue for him.”
Ford O’Connell, a Republican strategist, said the speculation surrounding Flynn’s cooperation with special counsel Robert Mueller would create uncomfortable headlines for the president but wouldn’t derail the tax reform agenda currently making its way through Congress.
“No one on Capitol Hill is going to go, ‘Oh, gee, Flynn copped a plea, now I’m not going to vote for tax reform,’” O’Connell said.
But O’Connell noted the Flynn news would “overshadow all the good things that happened this week.”
White House officials have been operating under a “Russian cloud” since even before Mueller’s appointment over the summer, O’Connell noted, and congressional Republicans have already factored the allegations into their calculations about whether to support the president’s agenda.
Senate Republicans who had expressed reluctance to support the GOP tax reform plan fell in line behind the plan this week after Trump journeyed to Capitol Hill to whip up support for his signature policy. The legislation advanced out of committee earlier this week and was on its way to the Senate floor on Friday as the Flynn news rocked Washington.
Trump also won a high-profile legal battle this week after his choice to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau on an interim basis, Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, was granted authority to lead the agency after the outgoing CFPB director attempted to name his own acting successor on his way out the door last week.
And the president arguably scored a symbolic victory on Friday when he hosted reporters at the White House for a reception that CNN boycotted due to the network’s feud with Trump.
But Flynn’s admission that he lied about his Russian contacts and his reported efforts to steer Mueller toward transition officials threatened to relegate the president’s successes this week to the background by Friday afternoon.
John Feehery, a GOP strategist, said Flynn’s guilty plea will not rob the White House of a long term victory if tax reform ultimately passes.
“The Flynn story will dominate the news short term. If the tax bill works the way it is supposed to, it will spur economic growth and get the president reelected,” Feehery said. “So, yes, he will take a short term hit, because of Flynn, but long term, the tax reform package is a much more important story.”