Saying he could not hide his “disgust,” a federal judge publicly excoriated Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first national security advisor, on Tuesday before unexpectedly postponing his sentencing for lying to the FBI.
U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan ripped into the retired three-star Army general for lying about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to Washington shortly after the 2016 election — and for secretly working as a lobbyist for a foreign government during the campaign and the presidential transition.
“Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for,” Sullivan said in a blistering rebuke from the bench. “Arguably, you sold your country out!”
Flynn belatedly registered as an agent for Turkey after he was ousted from the White House in February 2017 after only 23 days as national security advisor. He was not charged with a crime in that case.
Sullivan also upbraided Flynn for lying to the FBI and to other officials. “I'm not hiding my disgust, my disdain for this criminal offense,” he told Flynn.
“This is a very serious offense — a high-ranking senior official of the government, making false statements to the Federal Bureau of Investigation while on the physical premises of the White House,” he said.
Sullivan agreed to postpone sentencing Flynn until after two of his former business associates, who were charged Monday with illegally working on Turkey’s behalf, go on trial. Flynn has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in the case.
“I’m not making any promises” about sparing Flynn from prison time for lying to the FBI, the judge warned.
The judge’s fiery language startled many in the packed courtroom and apparently caught both prosecutors and defense lawyers by surprise. At one point, Sullivan suggested Flynn may have committed treason, although he later said he did not intend to assert that.
Before the hearing, Flynn appeared relaxed, smiling slightly and waving to a spectator who had spoken publicly on his behalf. Later, after the judge had angrily reproached him, Flynn’s face appeared emotionless.
Five of Trump’s former aides and associates — including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his former New York lawyer, Michael Cohen — have pleaded guilty as part of the investigation led by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Flynn, 59, is the only one who worked in the White House or had access to some of the government’s most closely held secrets as national security advisor.
Asked later Tuesday whether Trump was concerned that his former national security advisor had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and had worked as a foreign agent, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said those activities “don’t have anything to do with the president.”
Mueller’s office had recommended the judge spare Flynn imprisonment. Prosecutors cited his decorated 33-year military career and his “substantial assistance” to prosecutors in three separate investigations, including the probe into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Kremlin-backed effort to interfere in the U.S. election.
Flynn’s lawyers also had urged the judge to show leniency, but their tactics may have backfired when they appeared to argue in a recent court filing that FBI agents had tricked Flynn into lying — an allegation quickly echoed by the White House and others who claim the Mueller investigation is unfair.
Instead, Sullivan grilled both Flynn and his attorney, Robert Kelner, about whether they were alleging government misconduct. Both denied it.
Questioned under oath, Flynn told Sullivan that he had intentionally lied to the FBI during an interview in his West Wing office on Jan. 24, 2017 — four days after Trump was inaugurated — and that he knew it was a crime when he did it.
“I was aware,” Flynn said, standing stiffly before the judge in a charcoal-gray suit.
Pressed by the judge, Kelner said, “No, your honor,” when asked whether the FBI had entrapped Flynn or had violated his rights. Kelner added that Flynn stood by his guilty plea — an assurance that Flynn repeated.
Soon after, the judge transformed the hearing by castigating Flynn’s conduct in unflinching terms.
Sullivan emphasized that Flynn had lied not only to the FBI but to senior officials in the president’s transition team. Since those officials conveyed the lie to the news media, Sullivan added, Flynn also misled the American people.
“I’m going to be honest with you,” Sullivan said, looking directly at Flynn. “This crime [of lying to the FBI] is very serious … in the White House, in the West Wing.… The president’s most senior national security aide; I can’t minimize that.”
After Sullivan granted a 36-minute recess so Flynn could confer with his lawyers, they told the judge they wanted him to postpone the sentencing. The judge made clear he would take into consideration any additional cooperation Flynn gives to prosecutors.
Sullivan, 71, a native of Washington, D.C., earned his undergraduate and law degrees at Howard University. He is regarded as an even-handed judge who is not predictably pro-prosecution or defense.
President Reagan first appointed Sullivan a Superior Court judge in 1984. President George H.W. Bush later named him to the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. In 1994, President Clinton appointed him a U.S. District Court judge, the position he still holds.
In the year since Flynn pleaded guilty, he submitted to 19 interviews with federal prosecutors for the three investigations, according to a Dec. 8 sentencing memo filed by Mueller’s office.
One of the investigations led Monday to the unsealing of a federal indictment charging Flynn’s former business associates, Bijan Rafiekian and Turkish citizen Kamil Ekim Alptekin, with conspiracy and lying to the FBI.
They allegedly acted as illegal agents of the government of Turkey in a scheme to drum up U.S. support to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric living in exile in Pennsylvania. Turkish authorities have accused Gulen of orchestrating a 2016 coup attempt, allegations he has strongly denied.
Flynn, who is identified as “Person A” in the indictment, appeared to play a major role in some of the events described. Prosecutor Brandon Van Grack told Sullivan on Tuesday that Flynn could have been charged in the case but that he had assisted investigators.
Pressed by Sullivan, Van Grack said Flynn could face at least five to 10 years in prison if he were charged and convicted in that case. Under federal guidelines, by contrast, he could be sentenced to six months in prison for lying to the FBI.
In a Dec. 11 memo, Flynn’s defense lawyers urged the judge to sentence Flynn to a maximum of one year probation with “minimal conditions of supervision” along with 200 hours of community service for the lying charge.
The defense team said Flynn continued to “accept responsibility for his actions.” But the lawyers suggested misconduct when they asked why FBI agents did not warn Flynn before interviewing him at the White House that lying to federal agents is a crime. FBI agents are not required to issue that warning.
In response, Mueller’s team told the court last week that Flynn also lied to Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others regarding his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about the sanctions that President Obama had imposed on Moscow in December 2016 in response to Russian interference in the U.S. presidential race.
Prosecutors said Flynn also “made a second series of false statements” when he belatedly registered last year with the Justice Department as working for the government of Turkey in 2016.
In April 2012, Obama named Flynn to head the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s chief spying arm. But Flynn was forced out two years later after repeated policy clashes with the White House and complaints about his erratic management.
After retiring from the Army, he formed Flynn Intel Group, which provided intelligence services for businesses and governments in ventures that sought to leverage his national security experience and contacts.
Flynn and his company received $530,000 for his work for Turkey in the fall of 2016, according to court documents. He also collected fees from Russia.
In December 2015, Russia’s state-sponsored TV network RT paid Flynn $45,000 to speak at its 10th anniversary gala in Moscow. Pictures showed Flynn sat one seat away from Russian President Vladimir Putin during the dinner.
Flynn joined Trump’s campaign as a senior advisor two months later, surprising former military colleagues with his fierce partisan tone at rallies and events.
As a keynote speaker at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July 2016, Flynn called for jailing Hillary Clinton, leading the crowd in angry chants of “Lock her up!”
Both the FBI and CIA were reportedly alarmed by Flynn’s closeness to a Russian woman and concerns he may have been compromised by Russian intelligence. Obama warned Trump not to hire Flynn to his national security team when they met shortly after the election, advice Trump ignored.
On Jan. 26, 2017, two days after the FBI interviewed Flynn at the White House, the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, warned Don McGahn, the White House counsel, that Flynn “could be blackmailed” by the Russians for lying about his contacts with them.