Then-President Barack Obama was intimately aware of the details of December 2016 intercepted phone calls between President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, and then-Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, according to court documents released Thursday.
The former president’s knowledge and role in his administration’s investigations of the Trump campaign have long been an open question. The revelation puts the former president right in the center of the last administration’s efforts to investigate and target Flynn, whom the Justice Department just dropped their case against on Thursday. Obama had appointed Flynn as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency but had fired him in 2014, and he had reportedly warned Trump not to hire Flynn.
The newly released documents from the government’s motion to dismiss their case against Flynn show, however, that at a January 5, 2017, Oval Office meeting with then-Vice President Joe Biden, then-CIA Director John Brennan, then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, then-FBI Director James Comey, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Obama had asked Comey and Yates to “stay behind.”
Obama told them he had “learned of the information about Flynn” and his conversation with Kislyak, where they discussed sanctions his administration had levied against Russia. (A memo penned by then-National Security Adviser Susan Rice also showed that Biden stayed behind as well.)
Obama “specified he did not want any additional information on the matter, but was seeking information on whether the White House should be treating Flynn any differently, given the information.”
“Yates had no idea what the president was talking about, but figured it out based on the conversation. Yates recalled Comey mentioning the Logan Act, but can’t recall if he specified there was an ‘investigation.’ Comey did not talk about prosecution in the meeting,” the documents said.
“It was not clear to Yates from where the President first received the information. Yates did not recall Comey’s response to the President’s question about how to treat Flynn. She was so surprised by the information she was hearing that she was having a hard time processing it and listening to the conversation at the same time,” the documents said:
The January 5, 2017 meeting in which Sally Yates said she learned of Flynn-Kislyak call from President Obama himself–Susan Rice and VP Joe Biden were in that meeting, too, per Rice's famous memo-to-self. pic.twitter.com/6Wpdvkte0y
— Byron York (@ByronYork) May 7, 2020
The documents also showed how the Obama FBI justified an investigation into Flynn beginning August 2016, just a few months before the election. The reasons were that Flynn was “cited as an adviser to the Trump team on foreign policy issues February 2016; he has ties to various state-affiliated entities of the Russian Federation, as reported by open-source information; and he traveled to Russia in December 2015, as reported by open-source information.”
The FBI’s Washington office was prepared to close that investigation due to not finding “derogatory” information, but then-FBI agent Peter Strzok pushed to keep the investigation open.
Strzok and another agent interviewed Flynn at the White House on January 24, 2017, to ask him about his phone calls with Kislyak. Recently released notes from the DOJ showed agents discussing whether their goal during that interview was to get him to admit violating the Logan Act or to get him to lie so that he could be prosecuted or fired. The FBI already had transcripts of Flynn’s call, raising questions about if the FBI was simply trying to catch him in a perjury trap.
A handwritten note, presumably from then-head of FBI counterintelligence Bill Priestap, said, “What is our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?”
According to an interview summary by Strzok and the other agent, they did not detect that Flynn was lying or believed he was lying. However, later, special counsel Robert Mueller would charge him with one count of lying to federal prosecutors, and Flynn pleaded guilty as part of a plea deal. Flynn later requested to withdraw that guilty plea, citing pressure from prosecutors.
On Thursday, the DOJ moved to drop the case against Flynn, concluding that an FBI interview of Flynn related to his calls with Kislyak that led to one charge of lying to federal investigators was “conducted without any legitimate investigative basis.”