WASHINGTON — Often, at sentencing hearings, it’s the defendants or their victims who create the most dramatic moments, as they beg a judge for mercy or demand justice. But at a false start of a sentencing for former Trump National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, it was U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan who took the courtroom for a roller coaster ride.
Before moving to the typical sentencing procedures midday Tuesday, Sullivan spent a significant amount of time grilling Flynn about his plea of guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with Sergey Kislyak, the then-Russian ambassador to the United States.
Sullivan said that what “concerns” him were details in Flynn’s sentencing memo about the FBI interview. The judge asked Flynn and his lawyers more than a dozen questions about the circumstances of the interview and the plea. Sullivan even offered Flynn the opportunity to confer privately with his attorneys before answering these questions — an opportunity Flynn said he “appreciate[d]” but declined.
Each time Flynn or his attorney confirmed that he was guilty, that he was accepting responsibility and that the FBI had not sought to entrap him, another nail was pounded into the coffin of a major anti-Mueller conspiracy theory.
One top promoter of anti-Mueller speculation, Flynn’s son Mike Flynn Jr., was sitting in the front row with Flynn’s wife, Lori, watching the him answer those questions.
The examination of Flynn’s plea was by no means the end of Sullivan’s inquisition. He also had some questions for the government about Flynn’s cooperation. The “vast majority,” of Flynn’s cooperation was done, Mueller team attorney Brandon Van Grack said, but it “remains a possibility” that his assistance could continue.
When Van Grack brought up an indictment that was revealed Monday against Flynn’s ex-business partners to highlight Flynn’s cooperation, the mood took yet another turn. Sullivan pressed Van Grack about whether Flynn could have been charged in that indictment, and whether he committed other unlawful activity, including treason, that prosecutors could have charged him with but didn’t.
As he asked those questions, the judge became more emphatic about the seriousness of the crimes to which Flynn admitted. (Flynn has admitted to being an unregistered lobbyist for the Turkish government — an allegation that drives the indictment against his ex-associates — but wasn’t charged for that misconduct.)
Of his lies about his Kislyak conversations, Sullivan pointed out that Flynn also lied to the administration and transition figures as well. “I can’t minimize that,” the judge said, before turning to the unregistered lobbying.
“All along you were an unregistered agent of a foreign country while serving as the national security adviser,” Sullivan said, a claim the judge would walk back later in the hearing. “Arguably, that undermines everything that this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out.”
“I am not hiding my disgust, my disdain for your offense,” the judge said.
Earlier on, Sullivan had floated that Flynn might want to delay his sentencing so that he could finish his cooperation with prosecutors. Sullivan then suggested a recess for Flynn and his lawyers to contemplate that offer.
When the judge returned, some 30 minutes later, his emotions had cooled a bit. Perhaps realizing that his quotes had already made it into headlines and on social media, Sullivan sought to clean up a few things he had said. First, he clarified that Flynn had ended his lobbying efforts before working in the White House. Second, he said that by asking Van Grack about other unlawful activity Flynn had committed, he had no reason to believe Flynn had engaged in such conduct but rather was just trying to understand the “generosity” of Flynn’s plea deal to the government.
“The government has no reason to believe he has committed treason,” Van Grack said, citing the 19 interviews Flynn has done with prosecutors as part of his cooperation.
Kelner took to the podium to make a few more statements in defense of his client: that however his lawyers framed the memo shouldn’t reflect on him; that his high government ranking also was significant for his cooperation, in that it was a “signal” to other potential cooperators; that even before his plea deal, he kept a low profile and refrained from making comments about Mueller to the media.
This was the wind-up to the hearing’s last major reveal: that, after seeking to speed up sentencing, Flynn would prefer to delay it after all.
After clearing the idea with Flynn himself and with the prosecutors, Sullivan turned to a more mundane matter that is often the bread and butter court of hearings: figuring out a schedule for when Flynn and the prosecutors will next check in with the judge.
But as Flynn exited the courtroom, the atmosphere shifted yet again. Dozens of demonstrators were waiting for him with signs and chants. “U-S-A, U-S-A,” they yelled as he entered his SUV.