Did the Obama Administration Spy on Michael Flynn?

In his controversial tweet on Sunday, President Trump indicated that he would direct the Justice Department to investigate “whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes—and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!”

Is the president hinting that he thinks Michael Flynn, a top campaign consultant who briefly served as Trump’s national security advisor, was the target of FISA-authorized surveillance during the campaign or presidential transition—or during both?

Recently released documents—the final House Intelligence Report and the trove of memos authored by former FBI Director James Comey—contain clues to support that suspicion. In his memo dated February 8, 2017, Comey relays this exchange at the White House with then Chief of Staff Reince Priebus:

He then said he wanted to ask me a question and I could decide whether it was appropriate to answer. He then asked, “Do you have a FISA order on Mike Flynn?” I paused for a few seconds and then said that I would answer here, but that this illustrated the kind of question that had to be asked and answered through established channels. I said the answer [redacted]. I then explained that the normal channel was from DOJ leadership to the WH counsel about such things.

The next sentence is redacted. Comey continues: “I explained that it was important that communications about any particular case go through that channel to protect us and to protect the WH from any accusations of improper influence.”

Flynn resigned on February 13 amid reports he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about phone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016. (Details about the call were illegally leaked to the Washington Post in January 2017. The leaker has not yet been identified or charged.)

So why did the Justice Department redact Comey’s answer? It’s fair to assume that if his answer was “No,” there would be no need to conceal it. Also, why would Comey instruct Priebus to follow proper “channels” of inquiry to avoid accusations of “improper influence” if the answer was no? And not just a regular “No.” More like an Are-you-fricking-kidding-me-of-course-not! kind of “No.”

The unredacted version of the House Intelligence Committee’s report on Russian meddling in the 2016 election, released earlier this month, also dropped a little bombshell about Flynn. Comey told committee investigators that “he authorized the closure of the CI [counterintelligence investigation] into General Flynn in late December 2016; however, the investigation was kept open due to the public discrepancy surrounding General Flynn’s communications with Ambassador Kislyak.” (The Justice Department originally redacted this portion of the report, but unredacted it after heavy pushback by committee chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif.).

But speculation about whether Obama’s Justice Department monitored Flynn is not new. During a March 2017 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) challenged former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates (who served briefly as acting attorney general before Jeff Sessions was confirmed) about the Flynn-Kislyak conversations.

“There’s two situations where we would have found out what General Flynn said to the Russian ambassador,” Graham began. “If there was a FISA warrant focused on him . . . was there?”

Yates turned momentarily toward former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who was also testifying, and then told Graham: “I think you know I’m not gonna answer whether there was a FISA warrant, nor am I gonna talk about whether General Flynn was talking to the Russians.” Unfortunately, neither Graham nor his colleagues pushed Yates on why that answer would be classified.

We know now that Yates essentially was the one who set up Flynn, which resulted in his pleading guilty to one count of lying to the FBI: Byron York has a good timeline on the Flynn case and Yates’s role. She also signed off on at least one FISA application, and Yates bashed Trump Monday morning on “Morning Joe” lamenting how Trump was “ordering up an investigation of the investigators who were examining his own campaign.”

And don’t forget how another former Obama official inadvertently admitted to Mika Brzezinski in March 2017 that the outgoing administration feared “the Trump folks—if they found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff dealing with Russians—that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we no longer have access to that intelligence.” Underscore the word “staff.” That suggests the Obama Administration was monitoring Trump campaign advisers beyond just Carter Page.

Now, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee also wants more information on the Flynn-Kislyak call. In a May 11 letter to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein and FBI Director Christopher Wray, Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) followed up on his committee’s bipartisan request in February 2017 for the calls’ transcripts.

“The Department has withheld the Flynn-related documents since our initial bipartisan request last year, citing an ongoing criminal investigation,” Grassley wrote. “With Flynn’s plea, the investigation appears concluded.” Grassley in the letter refers to the “reportedly intercepted calls,” which could suggest he’s not buying into the commonly held view that Flynn’s call was picked up during routine surveillance of the Russian diplomat. (By the way, has any federal official confirmed that a FISA warrant existed on Kislyak during that time?) After 15 months of stonewalling, the Justice Department has until May 25 to cough up the transcripts.

This all seems to be leading up to the eventual revelation that Flynn was indeed spied on: the Democrats’ handmaids in the media are already trying to soften the blow.

In its May 16 article exposing the FBI’s “Crossfire Hurricane” operation into the Trump campaign, the New York Times reported that Flynn was among four associates eyed by the Obama Justice Department.

“The F.B.I. investigated four unidentified Trump campaign aides in those early months, congressional investigators revealed in February. The four men were Michael T. Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page and [George] Papadopoulos, current and former officials said. Each was scrutinized because of his obvious or suspected Russian ties.” Flynn was a subject, according to the Times, because he “was paid $45,000 by the Russian government’s media arm for a 2015 speech and dined at the arm of the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin.”

There is another reason the Obama Administration might have targeted Flynn: The former president despised him. In fact, during their first meeting in the White House after the 2016 election, Obama warned Trump not to hire the former three-star general. Flynn was forced out as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 after reportedly clashing with none other than . . . James Clapper.

Flynn would go on to deliver a fiery speech at the 2016 Republican National Convention, where he blasted both Obama and Hillary Clinton. “We do not need a weak, spineless president who is more concerned about issuing apologies than in protecting Americans,” he roared. “We do not need a reckless president who believes she is above the law.” Flynn then led the crowd with the “lock her up” chant.

Operation Crossfire Hurricane began a few weeks later.

What’s even more puzzling than the unanswered questions about if and how Flynn was spied on are the continued delays in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s case against him.

Shortly after Flynn pled guilty in December 2017, the judge who agreed to the plea was recused. Later reports emerged that the judge, Rudolph Contreras, had been appointed to the FISA court in May 2016; texts between FBI officials Peter Strzok (who interviewed Flynn in January 2017) and Lisa Page revealed the pair was friendly with Contreras and schemed about how to connect with him just as the counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign was getting underway in the summer of 2016.

Some have speculated that the chief judge of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia removed Contreras from the case because he signed one of the FISA warrants against Carter Page. But is it possible he also approved a warrant against Flynn and concealed that from the court?

The new judge on the case has twice instructed Team Mueller to disclose any exculpatory evidence that might have been withheld from Flynn’s lawyers during the investigation and the plea negotiations. On May 1, Mueller asked for another delay in Flynn’s sentencing.

The reality of how Obama’s intelligence and law enforcement powers were used to infiltrate the Trump campaign, after nearly two years of denials, is now coming into sharp focus. Next thing you know, we will be told that spying on Flynn was a good thing for all of us.

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Photo credit:  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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