UPDATE - It's a biggie, too. Here's a major "clarification" from ABC News, finally posted hours after their inaccurate report was shared far and wide. They meant to say this all happened after Trump was elected, not while he was a candidate. That is not exculpatory unto itself, per se (we don't know what Flynn may or may not be sharing with Mueller), but it's a significant walk-back. I go into more analysis why below. Post-election contacts with foreign governments on the part of a presidential transition team is not abnormal in the least. Why did Flynn lie to the FBI about it, then? Good question. We haven't heard the last of this, obviously. But if the central allegation is that the Trump campaign colluded with Moscow to impact the US election outcome, some behind-the-scenes discussions initiated after voters made their decision ain't a smoking gun.
There may be more trouble ahead for Team Trump, but this looks far less bad than it did a few hours ago. With faith in the press in crisis, these bad errors don't help close the credibility gap, particularly among people who already believe the media is out to get Trump. It took ABC far too long to fix this mistake, especially since other news organizations were reporting accurately on this timeframe issue (again, see below). And blaming it on one source misspeaking suggests that they didn't have a corroborating second source -- a journalistic best practice -- who could have cleared up the mistake before it was put on-air and online:
ORIGINAL POST - On its face, a bombshell: ABC News' Brian Ross just reported that former National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn is prepared to testify that Donald Trump "directed him to make contact with the Russians" as a candidate for the White House. If Flynn is gearing up to deliver damaging goods on top level Trumpworld figures -- perhaps even the president himself -- we now know why he was only charged with lying to the FBI. I say "only" because there appears to be a long list of other crimes with which Flynn could plausibly charged, based solely on what's been publicly reported. When that lone count came down, people started speculating that either Robert Mueller had hit a dead end in the wider probe, or Flynn had flipped. The answer was behind door number two:
Just now: @BrianRoss on @ABC News Special Report: Flynn promised full cooperation to the Mueller team and is prepared to testify that candidate Trump "directed him to make contact with the Russians.” https://t.co/E0tA37GOo0 pic.twitter.com/PmNEO7eekt— Dan Linden (@DanLinden) December 1, 2017
Ross reported that Flynn decided to fully cooperate with Mueller because he felt "abandoned" by Trump, and because he was facing extreme financial duress due to mounting legal bills. Here is Flynn's statement, released late this morning:
FLYNN statement: “It has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of ‘treason’” pic.twitter.com/xBuPECn0dw— Rebecca Ballhaus (@rebeccaballhaus) December 1, 2017
Two points, as we figure out what all of this means, which may not become immediately clear: (1) "As a candidate" is a crucial sentence fragment here. Why? Because an incoming president instructing his incoming NSA to reach out to foreign nations during a presidential transition would hardly qualify as extraordinary. It would be quite ordinary, in fact. And if the contacts occurred after November 8, 2016, that would undermine the central alleged scandal here, which is Trump campaign collusion with the Russians to influence the outcome of the election. (2) If Trump told Flynn to make contacts with the Kremlin prior to the election, that doesn't necessarily prove "collusion" either (though it may), but it at least contradicts numerous blanket assertions made by top White House officials and Trump spokespeople.
Here's one example from Hope Hicks: "There was no communication between the campaign and any foreign entity during the campaign." Former White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and current White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders have made similar statements. Previous "gotcha" examples of Russian "contacts" (ie, Sessions bumping into the Russian ambassador at a few parties) could be plausibly chalked up to faulty memories in the blur of a campaign. The candidate ordering a high ranking national security ally and future top aide to establish back channels to the Kremlin is a very different story. For now, I'm adopting a wait-and-see approach, as several other new reports suggest (contra Ross) that the alleged contacts may have occurred post-election:
WASHINGTON (AP) - Ex-Trump adviser Michael Flynn admits in plea that Trump transition officials directed his contacts with the Russians.— Jake Sherman (@JakeSherman) December 1, 2017
MORE: Prosecutors say Flynn was told by the senior member of Trump transition team to reach out to other countries to influence the U.N. vote to delay or defeat the resolution https://t.co/A2sQRsjpXO pic.twitter.com/bH5aW2CNBu— Reuters Top News (@Reuters) December 1, 2017
Again, we don't know the big-picture implications of any of this yet, but the campaign vs transition timeline matters. Proven campaign-era contacts would not automatically point to illegal acts or campaign "collusion," but they would deeply damage the White House's credibility. And it's important to note that transition-era contacts would not automatically be proper and lawful, either. It depends on the nature of the contacts (Fox's Catherine Herridge reports that one interaction during the transition pertained to angling to delay a UN vote, which some will argue -- probably weakly -- was illegal). And of course, questions about Trump's potential efforts to obstruct justice or quell probes into Flynn remain very much on the table as a matter for Mueller's team to ferret out.
I'll leave you with an unspinnable truth, plus a thought that should keep top Trump allies awake at night: The president's deeply-compromised former National Security Adviser has pleaded guilty to a serious crime, and has entered a new era of cooperation with the special counsel's office. And if Mueller did not have good reason to believe that Flynn's testimony would be very useful in expanding the investigation further up the food chain, why would he ever have agreed to offer Flynn a pass on so many serious alleged crimes? The sky may or may not be falling on President Trump. We need more time and more information to make that determination. But it's not a good day at the White House.
UPDATE - Former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy thinks the specifics of Flynn's plea suggest that today's developments are less significant than the fresh conventional wisdom holds. Click through for his reasoning. Two more developing angles on this:
NEW: A former senior intelligence officer with knowledge of Trump transition activities told Fox News that then-President-Elect Trump directed #MichaelFlynn to contact the Russians, but said he also directed the national security team to contact 12 other countries as well.— Brooke Singman (@brookefoxnews) December 1, 2017