President Trump is no master of subtlety. Especially when it comes to the special counsel’s Russia investigation, he usually just comes right out and shares his take in a pre-dawn tweet or Fox News interview.
So it’s instructive to see what the President has said about his associates caught up in Robert Mueller’s probe — most of whom have offered some degree of cooperation — and how his attitude toward them has changed over time. Given Trump’s perspective that cooperating with the government “almost ought to be outlawed,” the range is remarkable.
This week, Trump again defended his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, as a fellow victim of a deep state conspiracy. Other former staffers have been sidelined as peripheral, or in the case of Michael Cohen, smeared as an Omertà-breaking “rat.”
As legal experts have pointed out, these public evaluations are, in part, a tool Trump can use to try to direct his former associates’ testimony. Since Trump knows he has the “complete power to pardon,” he’s signaling what threat he believes they pose to him and what their fate could be.
Here is the President in his own words.
MICHAEL FLYNN, the loyal general Trump won’t say a bad word about
Trump has stood by Flynn since he was dismissed from the administration in February 2017 after lying to the FBI and to administration officials about the contacts he had with Russia during the presidential transition.
“He has been treated very, very unfairly by the media,” Trump said after Flynn’s firing.
In the ensuing months, Trump publicly praised Flynn’s years of military service and urged him to “ask for immunity.”
This protective stance didn’t waver after Flynn entered into a cooperation agreement with Mueller on Dec. 2, 2017. That day, Trump opined that Flynn’s “actions during the transition were lawful” and that his “life [was] destroyed” by the investigation.
Trump’s attitudes didn’t even change after Mueller revealed this month that Flynn sat for 19 cooperation sessions and offered such “substantial” information that he recommended no prison time.
“They gave General Flynn a great deal because they were embarrassed by the way he was treated – the FBI said he didn’t lie and they overrode the FBI,” Trump tweeted on Dec. 13. “They want to scare everybody into making up stories.”
Ahead of Flynn’s Tuesday sentencing hearing, Trump even wished him “good luck today in court.”
“Will be interesting to see what he has to say, despite tremendous pressure being put on him, about Russian Collusion in our great and, obviously, highly successful political campaign,” Trump tweeted.
Flynn is reportedly one of the individuals Trump has floated pardoning in the Russia probe, along with Paul Manafort.
PAUL MANAFORT, the possible pardon recipient who isn’t literally Al Capone
Though Trump has emphasized that Manafort’s criminal charges relate to activities largely carried out before he became Trump’s campaign manager, he believes Manafort also got a raw deal.
“Sorry, but this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign,” Trump tweeted in October 2017 after Manafort was indicted for bank and tax fraud.
This year, Trump kept up the support in a stream of tweets peppered with references to the Mafia and Manafort’s work for other Republican politicians.
“Manafort came into the campaign very late and was with us for a short period of time (he represented Ronald Reagan, Bob Dole & many others over the years), but we should have been told that Comey and the boys were doing a number on him, and he wouldn’t have been hired!” he wrote on June 3.
When Manafort was sent to jail on June 15 for tampering with a witness, Trump called it a “tough sentence” and said he “didn’t know Manafort was the head of the Mob.”
“Who was treated worse, Alfonse Capone, legendary mob boss, killer and ‘Public Enemy Number One,’ or Paul Manafort, political operative & Reagan/Dole darling, now serving solitary confinement – although convicted of nothing?” Trump asked on August 1.
On the day an Alexandria, Virginia jury deadlocked on 10 counts — after finding Manafort guilty of eight others — Trump said he felt “very badly for Paul Manafort and his wonderful family.”
“‘Justice’ took a 12 year old tax case, among other things, applied tremendous pressure on him and, unlike Michael Cohen, he refused to ‘break’ – make up stories in order to get a ‘deal,’” Trump continued. “Such respect for a brave man!”
Trump offered no criticism after Manafort subsequently reached a plea deal with Mueller in September. That goodwill was apparently repaid by Manafort, who continued to share information about his cooperation with Trump’s team for weeks. This ongoing contact ultimately prompted Mueller to break off his deal with Manafort.
MICHAEL COHEN, the ultimate lying “rat”
It didn’t take long for Trump to go from standing up for his former fixer to kicking him to the curb. When Cohen’s office and residences were raided by the FBI in April, Trump defended Cohen as a “fine person with a wonderful family” and lamented that “Attorney Client privilege is now a thing of the past.”
“Michael is a businessman for his own account/lawyer who I have always liked & respected,” Trump tweeted on April 21. “Most people will flip if the Government lets them out of trouble, even if it means lying or making up stories. Sorry, I don’t see Michael doing that despite the horrible Witch Hunt and the dishonest media!”
By May, as more details of the hush money payments surfaced in press reports, Cohen was downgraded to “an attorney” doing some side work entirely unrelated to the campaign.
By July, after Cohen released a tape of him and Trump discussing how to structure the payments, Trump called Cohen’s recording habits “inconceivable”—“totally unheard of & perhaps illegal.”
Then came Cohen’s August plea hearing, where he told the court that he made the payments “at the direction of” the President. Campaign finance violations “are not a crime,” an angry Trump insisted.
In a Fox interview, Trump dismissed his former personal attorney as someone he would “see sometimes” and admitted he’s had friends “involved in this stuff.”
“30, 40 years I have been watching flippers,” Trump said.
“Everything is wonderful and then they get 10 years in jail and they flip on whoever the next highest one is or as high as you can go,” Trump continued. “It almost ought to be outlawed.”
By December, the break was complete. At the hearing where Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison, he told the court he’d been “living in a personal and mental incarceration” as Trump’s sidekick. Cohen said that Trump’s public attacks on his character “create a false sense that the President can weigh in on the outcome of judicial proceedings that implicate him.”
Trump countered that Cohen, as his attorney, should have kept him from violating any laws. Confusingly, he simultaneously made the case that Cohen was a “low-level” employee who “did more public relations than he did law.”
The President also went after Cohen’s family, twice hinting that Cohen’s Ukrainian in-laws also deserved prison time for shady financial dealings.
ROGER STONE, the “guts”-y Deep State warrior
The GOP dirty trickster has earned praise from Trump for refusing to cooperate with prosecutors trying to ascertain whether the campaign collaborated with WikiLeaks to release damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Stone has both trashed the probe and maintained that he will never testify against Trump — music to the President’s ears.
Stone essentially stated “that he will not be forced by a rogue and out of control prosecutor to make up lies and stories about ‘President Trump,’” the President tweeted in December. “Nice to know that some people still have ‘guts!’”
GEORGE PAPADOPOULOS, the “low level volunteer”
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty last October to lying to the FBI about his own contacts involving Russia during the campaign. Trump, who described Papadopoulos as an “excellent guy” in 2016, acknowledged this development by distancing himself from his former campaign adviser.
“Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar,” he tweeted.
Papadopoulos spent the following year veering between apparently angling for a pardon and working to cooperate with Mueller’s prosecutors. Trump paid little attention to him.
RICK GATES, escapee of presidential attention
Gates appears to be the only cooperating witness who has been spared a presidential review. This is likely because the bulk of Gates’ cooperation involved sharing information on the sketchy financial dealings and Ukrainian lobbying work he and Manafort undertook.
Despite Gates’ work on the Trump campaign, transition, inauguration and a pro-Trump super PAC, the President said nothing when Gates entered into a formal plea deal with Mueller in February.
That silence may not last, though. Gates is reportedly cooperating with the Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s office probe into allegations that the inaugural committee misused funds and accepted foreign donations in exchange for access.