Early Tuesday afternoon, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan agreed to delay the sentencing of Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn until March.
In some ways, Flynn’s sentencing will bring closure to one chapter of the ever-expanding investigation by Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s efforts to collude with Russia to steal a presidential election. Flynn was the first and most senior Trump administration official to plead guilty to federal charges, in this case lying to the FBI.
But while the hearing was, in some ways, expected to be a formality — federal prosecutors recommended Flynn receive no prison time on account of his extensive cooperation with Mueller’s investigation — Judge Sullivan used his opportunity to meticulously and methodically twist the knife in one of the far-right’s favorite talking points.
For months, Donald Trump and his fellow right-wing extremists have adamantly insisted that Flynn is innocent, the victim of a partisan witch hunt who would ultimately be exonerated and expose the entire Russia investigatory apparatus as a fraud. Flynn’s own lawyers argued as much in their sentencing memo, suggesting that the FBI acted inappropriately in failing to adequately disclose that lying to federal agents was a crime. As recently as Tuesday morning, bloviators on Fox News were convinced that Judge Sullivan would use his judicial discretion and toss out the entire case.
A simple, if erroneous, idea formed the basis of their conspiracy theory: Flynn’s guilty plea was the result of coercion and deception by the FBI, which had entrapped Flynn into lying to investigators. Once the behavior of the agency was publicly disclosed, they argued, the judge would dismiss the whole thing and Flynn would walk free.
On Tuesday, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders went so far as to suggest that it would be the FBI, not Flynn, that Sullivan would subject to harsh condemnation for mishandling their investigation.
“We’ll see not just what [Flynn] has to say but also what the judge has to say, and how he will react to what we know the FBI did in terms of the way that they ambushed Michael Flynn in the interview process,” she told Fox News on Tuesday.
It took just 19 minutes for Judge Sullivan to set Sanders’ hopes of a favorable hearing —and months of conspiratorial build-up — ablaze.
Right off the bat, Sullivan asked Flynn if he wanted to publicly dispute the circumstances under which he was interviewed by the FBI. His legal team had insinuated that the agency misled their client on his legal right to counsel. Flynn declined to offer any disputation.
Again and again, Sullivan made a point of getting Flynn to not only admit that he was guilty of the crime to which he pleaded guilty, but that he knew lying to the FBI was a crime in the first place.
Judge Sullivan giving Flynn one final shot to withdraw his guilty plea. Judge asks if he wants to proceed.
FLYNN: “I would like to proceed.”
Because you’re guilty?
FLYNN: “Yes, your honor.”
— Ryan J. Reilly (@ryanjreilly) December 18, 2018
Only then did Sullivan accept Flynn’s plea deal, tearing into him in the process.
“You were an unregistered agent of a foreign country while serving as the National Security Adviser to the president of the United States,” he remarked, to the visible concern of Flynn and his legal team. “Arguably this undermines everything this flag over here stands for.” Sullivan would go on to share his “disgust” and “disdain” for Flynn’s crimes, even floating the word “treason,” a charge even prosecutors were quick to downplay. Sullivan walked back his “treason” comment shortly thereafter. (Treason only applies in instances in which “aid and comfort” are offered to an enemy of the United States, defined in the statute as “a nation or an organization with which the United States is in a declared or open war.” The two nations Flynn has been involved with, Russia and Turkey, do not meet this definition.)
Sullivan’s unremitting condemnation was all the more galling for Donald Trump and his supporters given the fact that just four days ago, Trump was heaping praise on Judge Sullivan for demanding the FBI turn over evidence of how they conducted their investigation into Flynn.
“The FBI said Michael Flynn, a general and a great person, they said he didn’t lie,” Trump told a room full of recent governors-elect on Saturday. “And Mueller said, ‘Well, maybe he did.’ And now they’re all having a big dispute, so I think it’s a great thing that the judge is looking into that situation. It’s an honor for a lot of terrific people.”
The value of Flynn’s cooperation with the Mueller investigation isn’t yet fully understood, but he met with the special counsel’s office on at least 19 separate occasions, totaling nearly 70 hours of testimony. Earlier this week, two of Flynn’s former associates were indicted on federal charges related to illegally lobbying on behalf of a foreign government, and Flynn’s testimony will play a large role in their trial.
Judge Sullivan asked prosecutors if Flynn was still actively cooperating with ongoing investigations. The government lawyers acknowledged it was a possibility, to which Judge Sullivan offered to postpone Flynn’s sentencing to a later date, giving him an opportunity to continue to demonstrate his worth as a government informant. Flynn’s lawyers, perhaps sensing a real possibility Judge Sullivan would ignore the prosecutorial recommendation of no prison term, jumped at the offer for a delay after taking a short recess around noon.