The unexpected delay in Michael Flynn’s sentencing raised a new wrinkle in the Russia probe.
The former national security adviser, who pleaded guilty to lying the FBI about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador, had expected to face no jail time after prosecutors vouched for him, saying he had provided substantial assistance in their investigation.
But when a federal judge lambasted Flynn and raised the prospect of prison, Flynn decided to postpone the hearing and keep cooperating to get as much credit as he can.
What we learned at Tuesday’s hearing:
Cooperation counts, but so does the crime
There was no argument from either side about the extent and value of Flynn’s cooperation. But US. District Judge Emmet Sullivan made clear that he was still hung up on the crime itself, repeating multiple times his distress over the fact that Flynn had lied to the FBI on the grounds of the White House.
Though Sullivan gave Flynn an opportunity to reset the process and earn additional credit for his cooperation, it’s not clear that he’ll get past the underlying crime itself.
Mueller wants to reward cooperators
Even as it became clear the judge was going to call out Flynn for lying to the FBI, the Mueller team signaled it was still OK with seeking little to no prison time.
Prosecutor Brandon Van Grack told the judge that he continued to believe Flynn accepted responsibility even though a sentencing memo filed by his lawyers last week raised the prospect that he was less than remorseful.
For Mueller, a sentence of probation to reward cooperators is an important incentive for others who are contemplating admitting guilt and working with the government.
Van Grack also noted that Flynn had already provided the “vast majority” of the information he could and he has already committed to fulfilling any other cooperation needed.
What does it mean for Trump?
Flynn took the legs out of some of President Donald Trump’s most recent attacks on the Russia investigation.
Trump, who regularly attacks the Mueller probe as a witch hunt, has wrongly stated that the FBI said Flynn “didn’t lie.” In recent comments at the White House, Trump said Flynn’s guilt was now in dispute and “I think it’s a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation.”
Look into it, Sullivan did. And after repeated questioning Tuesday, Flynn never wavered: He lied, he accepted responsibility for doing it and he wasn’t withdrawing his plea.
Asked specifically if he was entrapped or if any FBI misconduct led to Flynn’s false statements, Flynn attorney Robert Kelner said, “No.”
No answer yet for why Flynn lied
It remains the enduring question about Flynn: Why did he lie about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US?
Neither Flynn nor Mueller has said in court papers. And Tuesday, Flynn’s hearing was cut short before he was asked or had an opportunity to tell the judge why he had committed the crime.
So the wait continues.