President Trump was too busy directing workers where to place art in the West Wing on Jan. 24, 2017 to notice the two FBI agents walking by whose impending interview of his national security advisor was about to dog his presidency for years.
That, and other details about the fateful day that Michael Flynn lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, were revealed in a court filing Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller.
Before the FBI sat down with Flynn, he had given false accounts of the conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to top administration officials, who in turn repeated it to the media, Mueller pointed out.
Nevertheless, then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates was reportedly “not happy” about the plan to interview Flynn about the Kislyak discussion, which took place during the presidential transition.
According to notes from a July 2017 FBI interview with Peter Strzok — the lead FBI agent who interviewed Flynn and who later got kicked off the Russia probe for anti-Trump texts — then-FBI Director James Comey was only going to tell Yates right before the interview about the plan, though he ended up telling her a little earlier when she called him about another matter.
It appears that the internal strife at the Justice Department over the decision to interview Flynn continued after the interview, though from the redactions, it’s not clear who was doing the arguing.
Regardless, it was Yates — accompanied by then-Acting Assistant Attorney General Mary McCord — who traveled to the White House two days later to inform the White House that Flynn had made false statements to the FBI. Yates met with then-White House Counsel Don McGahn the following day to discuss the matter again, she later testified in front of Congress, and on Jan. 30, she called McGahn to invite him to the Justice Department to review the underlying evidence showing Flynn had made false statements. McGahn never made the trip, and Yates was soon fired for refusing to defend in court Trump’s travel ban.
It wasn’t the first time Comey kept Main Justice conspicuously at arm’s length. After being fired by Trump that spring, Comey was later criticized by the Justice Department inspector general for going behind the back of Yates’ predecessor, Obama-era Attorney General Loretta Lynch, to hold a press conference about the Hillary Clinton email investigation.
Friday’s revelations came in a court filing by Mueller ahead of Flynn’s sentencing next week. In the filing, Mueller used the details of the FBI interview to push back on Flynn’s recent suggestion in a sentencing memo that he was somehow the victim of an FBI entrapment scheme.
A memo written the same day of the interview by then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, who called Flynn to set up the interview, provided other new details about the fateful encounter.
One partially redacted line suggests that Flynn, who once served as the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, might have suspected that his Kislyak call was intercepted or that the FBI otherwise had an idea of what was said on the call.
Nevertheless, Flynn agreed to the interview, and told McCabe that he wouldn’t bring with him any lawyers, which McCabe told Flynn would have required going through some extra hoops on his end at the Justice Department. Once Strzok and the other FBI agent arrived at the White House, Flynn, appearing “relaxed and jocular,” wanted to give them a tour, where they had a chance — albeit unnoticed — encounter with the President.
Strzok was taken aback by how much time Flynn had to just shoot the breeze with the agents before getting to the matter at hand.
The notes from the July 2017 Strzok interview confirm congressional testimony by Comey that the FBI didn’t get the impression that Flynn was lying during the interview. Strzok walked away thinking that Flynn was “bright, but not profoundly sophisticated.”
Read the two filings below: