Keen watchers of the investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election are in overdrive right now interpreting a key document that dropped on Tuesday night in the criminal case against general Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security advisor.
Flynn has been the focus of much schadenfreude on the American left, largely because he rose to prominence during the campaign as a rabid Trump supporter, and a video of him leading a crowd at the Republican National Convention in an anti-Hillary Clinton chant of “lock her up!” went viral based on the sheer power of its irony after he pleaded guilty to a charge of lying to the FBI in December 2017.
The irony was compounded on Tuesday evening, however, because the document filed by Mueller recommended that the man who led that now-famous “lock her up” chant be given no jail time based on his cooperation with the Mueller inquiry.
The recommendation came hard on the heels of the news that Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort had been discovered to have breached his plea agreement by lying to the inquiry, as well as that a new plea agreement had been reached with the president’s former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen on the charge of lying to Congress.
Some of the documents released in the Flynn recommendation were heavily and tantalisingly redacted:
Sometimes a picture redacts a thousand words pic.twitter.com/Q72Y5zB5CV
— James Ball (@jamesrbuk) December 5, 2018
That means that while it is clear that Mueller is pleased with Flynn’s cooperation, we still don’t know exactly what form this help has taken. But certainly, this is pretty bad news for the president: the implication is not only that Flynn is cooperating but that he is giving Mueller information that the special counsel finds credible and useful.
And while we now see how Mueller deals with kindness to those who cooperate with him, with sentencing recommendations set to come down soon for Manafort, we will soon see what Mueller does to those who cross him. It is unlikely to be pretty. Most legal experts agree that Manafort is likely facing hard prison time.
In the difference between the two responses – one for the uncooperative Manafort, and the other for the cooperative Flynn – Mueller is sending a clear message: if you give me what I need, you will be OK. If you do not, then you are going away for a long, long time.
The timing of the Manafort announcement is itself interesting: it came just after the president submitted his written answers to the inquiry. By waiting until after that to reveal that he knew Manafort was lying to him, Mueller led Trump into what could well be another trap.
All told, the sum of these events tells us that Mueller is turning up the pressure on the president slowly and deliberately. The special counsel’s inquiry crunches through Trump’s former aides and lieutenants with terrifying thoroughness. Trump is right to be rattled: slowly and methodically, Mueller is tightening the screws on him.