When the crowd chanted “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton, Michael Flynn smiled. “You’re damn right,” he told last year’s Republican national convention. “You’re exactly right. There’s nothing wrong with that! And you know why we’re saying that? We’re saying that because if I – a guy who knows this business – if I did a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.”
On Friday Flynn’s bravado and righteousness had been stripped away. A humbled Flynn buttoned his jacket as he walked into the US district court in Washington, to be greeted by the austere trappings of a federal courthouse with its solemn lawyers, stiff-backed marshals and hungry reporters.
Flynn, the man once led crowds in calling for Clinton to be put behind bars, found himself standing before a judge, pleading guilty to making false statements to the FBI, and facing a possible prison term. Not for the first time in Donald Trump’s presidency, it was the kind of plot twist that most thriller writers would avoid as just too improbable.
Clinton herself maintained a diplomatic silence, but for her supporters, a sense of schadenfreude may be irresistible.
Flynn was once Trump’s favorite general, who warmed up the Republican candidate’s rallies with fiery speeches and bolstered his unlikely credentials as a potential commander-in-chief of the world’s most powerful military. He was rewarded with the job of national security adviser at the start of the administration.
But he was fired after just a month in the White House for misleading Vice-President Mike Pence over his contacts with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. He is now the first aide who worked in the Trump administration – as opposed to just the campaign – to face charges in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into alleged collusion with Russia.
Wearing a dark blue suit and blue striped tie, Flynn arrived at the same courthouse where, a month earlier, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Robert Gates pleaded not guilty to charges including conspiracy to launder money and conspiracy against the United States.
Flynn listened intently as prosecutor Brandon Van Grack put the case against him. “A very senior member of the transition team directed” the retired general to contact Kislyak, Van Grack told the court. Flynn also acted as a go-between for Russian officials and the transition team on a UN security council resolution vote on Israeli settlements, he added.
If there was a silver lining for Trump on another very dark day, it was that these conversations took place after the presidential election, not during the campaign. But Flynn made false statements about the contacts in an interview with the FBI on 24 January, just four days after Trump’s inauguration.
US district judge Rudolph “Rudy” Contreras, sitting before a marble back wall, gave Flynn plenty of opportunity to change his mind about a guilty plea, warning him that he would be giving up his right to the presumption of innocence and almost certainly to an appeal.
“Is your willingness to plead guilty here today the result of a discussion you had with the government through your attorneys?” the judge asked.
Flynn said yes.
“There are no side oral agreements?”
Flynn said no.
Flynn was asked if he understood he could face a maximum sentence of five years in prison and a fine of $250,000. He said he did.
Asked if anyone had promised him that he would get a lighter sentence in return for pleading guilty, Flynn said no.
“Has anyone forced, threatened or coerced you in any way into entering a guilty plea?” Contreras asked,
Flynn said no.
Finally, it was time for the plea. “Guilty, your honour,” said Flynn, in a quiet but steady voice.
Minutes later he left the packed courtroom and stepped into a lift. Reporters thundered downstairs in pursuit but he slipped away. Outside the building, he walked to a waiting car watched by a forest of cameras.
His office soon confirmed that he is cooperating in Mueller’s investigation.
In a statement, Flynn denied allegations of “treason” but admitted his actions were “wrong”.
Former FBI director James Comey – asked by Trump to go easy on Flynn in an incident that has reportedly caught the eye of the special counsel – had obviously been watching. He tweeted out a biblical quotation on Friday: “But justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”