Over the past few months, two main players in Donald Trump’s universe have been collaborating with federal prosecutors investigating the president.
But while the president has all but declared war on his former lawyer, Michael Cohen, he has bent over backwards to remain publicly on good terms with his first and fired National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, going so far as to wish him the best of luck before his sentencing hearing on Tuesday.
The niceties have sparked a fair amount of speculation about what both Flynn and Trump’s actual endgames may be, including after Tuesday when Flynn’s lawyers shockingly agreed with Judge Edward Sullivan to delay sentencing. But to hear allies and associates of the president tell it, the answer is rather simple: Flynn, it is assumed, is not a snitch, even if all contemporaneous evidence suggest that he probably is.
“We hope [Flynn] tells the truth and hope he gets no jail time, or little jail time,” Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor now serving as a lead Trump attorney for the Robert Mueller probe, told The Daily Beast on Tuesday. Giuliani claimed that the president hasn’t given him any indication that he suspects Flynn to be a turncoat like Cohen was, and instead insisted that “President Trump felt bad that Flynn got jammed up” in this.
For Trump diehards, Flynn’s ability to retain a cult-hero status reflects a larger point about the president: He appreciates loyalty and values those who don’t air grievances in public. Though Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to federal authorities, been exposed as having been a foreign agent during the presidential campaign, and offered extensive cooperation with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, his MAGA credentials remain solid because he joined the Trump campaign relatively early and has stayed quiet when he got in legal trouble.
“The president remembers loyalty, there’s no question—and Gen. Flynn was loyal early on,” said Jeff Lord, a former CNN commentator and an early political supporter of Trump’s. “Anybody who sticks up for Donald Trump, he will remember it. He’s very good at that.” Lord should know. In June 2013, he authored a pro-Trump American Spectator column—an article Trump read and remembered and for which he has kept Lord in his good graces even up until today.
But there is also recognition that Flynn’s one-of-the-gang status could vanish in the span of a news cycle. Two sources close to the president recall different instances in the last year when Trump would grill them on the latest Flynn news and ask them questions in ways that made clear that the president had his guarded suspicions that Flynn could turn on him. Three other people who speak often with the president say that what Trump often tells them in private mirrors closely what they see on Twitter—that he believes Flynn is a victim and a patriot, and someone who will keep strong and loyal when the chips are down.
“That could all go to hell pretty damn quick,” one of these three Trump associates conceded.
Cohen is one of many who have experienced the hellward turn. The president’s longtime fixer has become persona non grata in the White House. On Tuesday afternoon, Trump’s White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders called him a known “liar on a number of fronts,” days after Trump himself called him a “rat.” The anger culminated last week, when Cohen was sentenced to three years in jail and subsequently went on television to say that the president was complicit in the crimes that were committed.
Flynn’s own sentencing was supposed to come on Tuesday, after a nearly year-long ordeal that began with FBI officials investigating his interactions with Russian officials during the presidential transition. Flynn was ultimately fired from his post as national security adviser in January 2017 after it was revealed he lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the details of his conversation with then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Not long after his ouster, Flynn became a cooperating witness in the Russia investigation, agreeing to a total of 19 proffer sessions in which he told prosecutors not only about his call with Kislyak, but also about other Trump associates’ overtures to Moscow.
Through it all, however, the president has never publicly excoriated him or questioned his character directly. Instead, he’s attacked law enforcement officials for the way they’ve handled his case, leaving current and former federal prosecutors both fearful and confused. Two former prosecutors said it is possible Flynn’s cooperation agreement, and the evidence he provided to Mueller, directly implicates President Trump and his closest advisers.
“If that is true it’s even more confusing that Trump would be so outspoken about Flynn, especially in a supportive way,” said one former senior Department of Justice official. “But maybe, even with all these sessions Flynn has had with Mueller, the president thinks that somehow he is going to get off scotch-free.”
One current senior official in the department said there is a possibility that Flynn is angling for a pardon from Trump, which the president has reportedly discussed with his lawyers.
A pardon would intensify criticism that Trump is circumventing and even obstructing investigations into his administration. But for Trumpworld luminaries and top allies of the White House, it would be a welcomed development. Flynn’s hardcore fans include the Deplorable Choir, which released a song in October about how Flynn is “the core of the American man,” and whose frontwoman showed up at the courthouse on Tuesday to offer their support.
“I truly believe he was framed,” the group’s lead singer and songwriter, who goes by “C.J.,” told The Daily Beast, and that “right now our justice system is, ‘show me a person, and I’ll find you a crime.’” C.J. alleged that “Mueller and his mob gangsters” are simply pressuring Flynn into doing what they want. “If he retracted his guilty plea, they’ll find something else,” she said. “That’s why we’re defending him so hard.”
Asked why she did not feel the same way about Cohen, C.J. replied, “I wouldn’t call him a Trump ally, I’d call him a sleazeball.”
—With additional reporting by Will Sommer