ast June, less than a month after President Donald Trump fired James Comey, the director of the F.B.I., the Senate Intelligence Committee convened to hear Comey’s testimony about a bizarre series of conversations he’d had with Trump. The strangest of these took place on February 14th, in the Oval Office, after Comey attended a meeting with a group of senior officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Trump asked Comey to remain when the others left. He wanted to talk about Michael Flynn, who had served as a top official in Trump’s campaign and had resigned from his position as the President’s national-security adviser the previous day, after information about pre-Inauguration phone conversations he’d had with the Russian Ambassador leaked to the press. Trump knew that the F.B.I. was investigating Flynn for lying about these calls, among other possible crimes, and he had a favor to ask of Comey. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said. “He is a good guy.” Trump is not generally known for his magnanimous impulses toward former associates, so the question of why he wanted the F.B.I. to ease up on Flynn became a matter of intense debate. We may now know the reason.
On December 1st, in federal court in Washington, D.C., Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements in the investigation the President wanted to stop. Flynn admitted to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador, concerning sanctions imposed on Russia by President Obama. Flynn also apparently reported on discussions with the Russian Ambassador to K. T. McFarland, a Fox News analyst who became Trump’s deputy national-security adviser, and Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and trusted adviser. At the time of the conversations, the Russia sanctions were of interest to the President-elect—largely, it seems, because they were of great interest to Russia. Vladimir Putin’s government wanted them lifted, and Flynn let Kislyak know that help was on the way. After the contact with Flynn, Russian officials decided to wait until the new Administration was in place to respond to Obama’s sanctions. This pleased the President-elect, who tweeted, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin)—I always knew he was very smart!” On this topic, as on so many others, the new Administration seemed to see things Russia’s way.
For months, Trump has insisted that the investigations into Russian meddling—investigations being conducted by the special counsel Robert Mueller and by both the Senate and House Intelligence Committees—amount to nothing more than fake news. But, as is so often the case when the President cries “fake news,” the truth soon emerges. Flynn’s encounter with Kislyak gets at central questions about the 2016 Presidential campaign and election: why were Trump and Russia doing one another’s bidding, and what promises were made between the candidate and that country in the event that he won? Flynn has now committed himself to answering those questions. He was charged with a single felony count, escaping multiple charges of greater magnitude in exchange for his coöperation with prosecutors. The leniency of the deal indicates that Flynn has information not only about the transition-team members but also about his superiors—and the national-security adviser’s only real superior is the President of the United States. Comey, whose testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee mapped out the President’s potential obstruction of justice, certainly seems to feel vindicated by Flynn’s guilty plea and by what it might mean for Trump. Shortly after the news broke, Comey, referring to the Biblical Book of Amos, tweeted, “But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”
Mueller was appointed on May 17th, a week after Comey was fired, by Rod J. Rosenstein, who was acting as Attorney General after Jeff Sessions recused himself from matters related to the investigation. Mueller was directed to conduct “a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 election . . . including any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” In the months since then, Mueller’s task has often been described as an inquiry into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia—paradoxically, that framing has also become the heart of Trump’s defense. At least two officials in Trump’s inner circle have now lied to investigators about their dealings with Russia; four have been charged with felonies. Flynn’s guilty plea and promise to coöperate bring the investigation into the Oval Office for the first time. The charge against him, along with the cases against other members of Trump’s campaign, also hint at the kind of case Mueller may be building, and what defense the President and his associates may have.
Three lawyers form the core of the President’s defense team: Ty Cobb, John Dowd, and Jay Sekulow. In July, Trump hired Cobb away from private practice at the Washington law firm of Hogan Lovells, where he specialized in white-collar criminal defense, to serve as the White House liaison to Mueller’s office. Cobb is sixty-seven years old, with a voluptuous handlebar mustache and a serene manner. (According to family lore, he is a distant cousin of the late baseball star of the same name.) Cobb describes his duties as mundane in the extreme. “I feel most of the time like a second-year associate, because all I do is produce documents,” he told me. “My approach has been principally to accelerate the production of documents and the availability of witnesses to the fullest extent I can, with the hope of getting rid of this cloud that hampers the President in foreign policy, in domestic policy, and has the country confused and experiencing a malaise of the type that Jimmy Carter once explained. I think I’ve got a willing partner in Mueller, who also understands the importance of his task and the impact that it has on the Presidency.”
The White House lawyers, including Cobb, represent the institution of the Presidency, and Trump’s own lawyers, including Dowd and Sekulow, protect their client’s personal interests, but as a practical matter their goals are aligned: to make sure that Trump survives the Mueller investigation with his Presidency, and his liberty, intact. Trump’s public reaction to the investigation has been expressed principally through Sekulow, who is representing the President in an unlikely partnership with Dowd, who was hired in June. Dowd is best known for leading Major League Baseball’s investigation of Pete Rose for gambling on games, and, even though he has had fewer prominent cases recently than in the past, his hiring made a certain sense. Dowd is close to John F. Kelly, the White House chief of staff, who recommended him for the job, and who, like Dowd, is a retired marine and a native of the Boston area.