Updated 12/2, 11:47 a.m. ET
President Trump's first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition, and he is cooperating with the special counsel's investigation into Moscow's interference in last year's election.
Flynn told investigators that he was instructed to engage with the Russians by senior members of the Trump transition team.
The plea agreement marks a major development in special counsel Robert Mueller's probe — Flynn is the first former senior official from the Trump White House to face charges. It also suggests that Flynn has information that may take investigators to the core question of their inquiry: possible coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Speaking Saturday morning before departing for New York City, President Trump again denied any coordination between Russia and his campaign. "What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion. There's been absolutely no collusion, so we're very happy," Trump said when asked about Flynn's guilty plea, according to a pool report.
Flynn, a retired lieutenant general who emerged as a top Trump adviser during the 2016 presidential race, entered his guilty plea during a hearing Friday morning in federal court in Washington, D.C. Leaving the courthouse after about an hour, Flynn stepped into a waiting black SUV and did not answer questions shouted at him by journalists gathered on the sidewalk outside.
But in a statement sent by his lawyers, Flynn admitted that he has made mistakes.
"I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right," he said. "My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel's Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. I accept full responsibility for my actions."
The single count relates to Flynn's discussions in late 2016 — during the transition period between Trump's victory on Election Day and his inauguration in late January — with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions the Obama administration had just imposed on Russia and about a U.N. Security Council resolution, according to court papers filed by the special counsel.
Other court papers released Friday provide more details on those interactions.
The day after then-President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia over Moscow's election interference, Flynn spoke with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the court documents say.
Flynn first consulted with a "senior official of the Presidential Transition Team," who was with other transition members at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, on what to tell the ambassador about American sanctions.
Speaking later that day with Kislyak, Flynn requested that Russia not retaliate against the punitive measures just imposed by the U.S., the court papers say. Flynn then called the transition official to report on his discussion. The following day, Russia announced that it would not take retaliatory measures against the U.S.
Top Trump aides Stephen Miller, K.T. McFarland, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon and Reince Priebus were all at Mar-a-Lago with then-President-elect Trump on Dec. 29, 2016, according to a pool report by a journalist assigned to cover Trump and the transition team on that day.
Flynn also engaged in a similar back-and-forth with the Russian ambassador over a U.N. Security Council vote on a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. The incoming Trump administration opposed the resolution, and Flynn asked the Russian envoy to either oppose the measure or delay it. Flynn was directed by a "very senior member" of the transition team to make the request, court papers say.
Media reports have suggested that "very senior" transition official is Jared Kushner. A person familiar with the Trump transition efforts denies that Kushner "directed" Flynn to contact officials from Russia and other foreign governments to find out their stance on the resolution.
"The U.N. effort was well-known and a collaborative effort by Reince Priebus, Steve Bannon, General Flynn and Jared Kushner," the source told NPR. "None of them 'ordered' or 'directed' the others and all were working towards the same goal."
Flynn resigned from his White House post under pressure in February after allegations that he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, then misled Vice President Pence about the conversations.
"Throughout my over thirty three years of honorable military service, and my tenure as the National Security Advisor, I have always performed my duties with the utmost of integrity and honesty to those I have served, to include the President of the United States," Flynn wrote in his resignation letter.
After Flynn's departure, he went out of his way to express loyalty to the president and he told acquaintances he was still in touch with Trump, who urged him to "stay strong," according to a Yahoo News report.
On Friday, White House special counsel Ty Cobb tried to distance the administration from Flynn, describing him as "a former National Security Advisor at the White House for 25 days during the Trump administration, and a former Obama administration official."
Cobb said that Flynn's false statements "mirror" those he made to White House officials, which resulted in his resignation in February.
"Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn," Cobb added. "The conclusion of the Special Counsel's work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion."
But Flynn's plea agreement and cooperation with Mueller would seem to signal the opposite — that the investigation has now reached into the Trump White House itself, and that it still has a long way to go before wrapping up.
Flynn was a trusted adviser who worked closely with other campaign officials, many of whom are now senior administration officials.
Flynn has long been known to face legal troubles over a range of issues.
Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, an Obama administration holdover, testified under oath on Capitol Hill that she had warned the White House counsel about Flynn before her firing in January, but that he seemed to play down the significance of her warning.
Flynn also took the step of filing documents with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, for his lucrative lobbying work on behalf of Turkey in 2016, a period that overlapped with the presidential campaign. Criminal enforcement of the FARA has been spotty, with only seven cases since 1966.
But failure to register under the law formed the basis of criminal charges against Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman, and Manafort's deputy, Richard Gates, in late October.
As investigations into Russian election interference began to intensify this year, Flynn offered to testify to congressional committees — if he could receive immunity in exchange for his remarks. "Gen. Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit," his lawyer Robert Kelner said at the time.
More recently, Flynn's son, Michael G. Flynn, who worked alongside his father at the Flynn Intel Group, has come under scrutiny from congressional investigators and the special counsel.
Several veteran lawyers on the special counsel team have a history of approaching lower-level figures, including relatives of their targets, to build bigger cases against corporate executives or mob figures.
After prosecutors unveiled charges against Manafort and Gates on Oct. 30, the White House distanced itself from them, pointing out that the bulk of their alleged offenses predated the presidential campaign.
But putting distance between Trump and Flynn may be more of a challenge, as the president repeatedly praised Flynn for his service and loyalty, even after he left the White House this year.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
We start with a big development in the legal investigation into contacts between President Trump's associates and officials in Russia. The president's former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador. He has also agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is here to talk us all through this. Hi, Carrie.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So, OK, first just explain. What exactly did Michael Flynn admit to in federal court there in Washington today?
JOHNSON: Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to a single false statements charge stemming from a January 24, 2017, interview he did with the FBI after he was already in the White House as President Trump's national security adviser.
Now, these court documents say that Flynn lied to the FBI in that interview about two things - one, a series of December 22 conversations he had with the then-Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about possibly delaying a U.N. Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements and, two, a December 29 series of conversations he had with Sergey Kislyak and others about U.S. sanctions and Russia.
MCEVERS: OK, so he's pled guilty to lying to the FBI basically. And this is basically a pretty narrow charge, I mean, given - especially that the special counsel was looking at a pretty wide range of Flynn's activities in business and in government. What does it mean that this charge is so narrow?
JOHNSON: Yeah. In fact, Kelly, this charge carries a five-year statutory maximum penalty, but prosecutors today say Mike Flynn, under their calculations, could serve between zero and six months in prison maximum. It means in essence that Mike Flynn has something to trade. His son, who was his business associate, was not charged today, not mentioned in court papers at all.
And we know based on other information in the court documents that Mike Flynn was under investigation for failing to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. He may have in fact lied on that form. He also was under investigation with respect to some of his business dealings in Turkey and Russia. None of those charges appeared today. That's because we think that Mike Flynn has something to trade on other people involved in the Trump campaign, and he's delivering it to the special counsel now.
MCEVERS: Do we know what people those - that could be?
JOHNSON: There are some hints or clues in the court documents today. Nobody is presented by name. But with respect to the December 22 conversations, we do know that somebody called a very senior member of the Trump transition was interacting with Mike Flynn. We do know that Jared Kushner, a presidential adviser and son-in-law, was very involved in that U.N. effort with respect to Israeli settlements. But somebody close to the transition say - says to me that it was a collaborative effort. Other people were involved like Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Mike Flynn and others and that nobody directed anyone else to do anything.
There's also a hint in the court documents, Kelly, about a senior member of the transition team. And we do know that with respect to Flynn's contacts on December 29, according to prosecutors, he was talking to people at Mar-a-Lago. Jared Kushner was not in Florida at the time. Jared Kushner was in Hawaii on vacation. Bunch of other Trump associates like Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway were at Mar-a-Lago. We don't know if he talked to any of those people.
MCEVERS: OK. So Michael Flynn is the fourth person now tied to the Trump campaign to be charged with a crime this year. What is the White House saying about this?
JOHNSON: Yeah. The White House lawyer Ty Cobb has put out a statement saying Mike Flynn was let go or resigned under pressure from the White House for exactly this kind of conduct. And Ty Cobb says nothing about the guilty plea or the charge today implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. Ty Cobb also said the special counsel is moving with all deliberate speed to conclude his investigation. It's not sure - or not clear yet how high up in the White House that investigation may go.
MCEVERS: And Ty Cobb also emphasized how little time Mike Flynn spent in the Trump administration and mentioned that he was also in the Obama administration, no?
JOHNSON: That's true, although Mike Flynn was fired from - by the Obama administration in his job as leading the Defense Intelligence Agency, it should be pointed out.
MCEVERS: Right. NPR's Carrie Johnson, thank you very much.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.