Former US national security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors delving into the actions of US President Donald Trump's inner circle before he took office.
Friday's dramatic turn of events also raised new questions about whether Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, had a role in those discussions.
Flynn was the first member of Trump's administration to plead guilty to a crime uncovered by special counsel Robert Mueller's wide-ranging investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 US election and potential collusion by Trump aides.
Under a plea bargain deal, Flynn admitted in a Washington court that he lied when asked by FBI investigators about his conversations last December with Russia's then-ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, just weeks before Trump took office.
Prosecutors said the two men discussed US economic sanctions against Russia and that Flynn asked Kislyak to help defeat or delay a UN vote seen as damaging to Israel. On both occasions, he appeared to be undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama.
They also said a "very senior member" of Trump's transition team had told Flynn to contact Russia and other foreign governments to try to influence them ahead of the vote.
Sources told Reuters that the "very senior" official was Kushner, a key member of Trump's transition team and now the president's senior adviser.
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Kushner's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has previously said Kushner has voluntarily cooperated with all relevant inquiries and would continue to do so.
Flynn's decision to cooperate with Mueller's team marked a major escalation in a probe that has dogged the president since he took office in January.
There was nothing in the court hearing that pointed to any evidence against Trump, and the White House said Flynn's guilty plea implicated him alone.
"Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn," said Ty Cobb, a White House lawyer.
Flynn, a retired army lieutenant general, only served as Trump's national security adviser for 24 days. He was forced to resign after he was found to have misled Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with Kislyak.
But Flynn had been an enthusiastic supporter of Trump's election campaign and the president continued to praise him even after he left the administration, saying Flynn had been treated "very, very unfairly" by the news media.
Prosecutors say Flynn and Kislyak last December discussed economic sanctions that Obama's administration had imposed on Moscow for allegedly interfering in the election.
Flynn admitted later falsely telling FBI officials that he did not ask Kislyak to refrain from escalating a diplomatic dispute with Washington over the sanctions.
Prosecutors said Flynn consulted with a senior member of Trump's presidential transition team about what to communicate to the Russian ambassador.
"Flynn called the Russian ambassador and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. sanctions in a reciprocal manner," prosecutors said in court documents.
It did not name the senior official in the Trump team but US media reports identified former adviser K.T. McFarland as the person. Reuters was unable to verify the reports.
Flynn is the fourth person charged in connection with Mr Mueller's investigation.
The other three known to be charged by Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe are:
- Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and Robert Gates. A grand jury in October indicted Manafort, a longtime Republican political consultant, and Gates, a business associate. The two men pleaded not guilty on October 30 to the 12-count indictment, whose charges include conspiracy to launder money, conspiracy against the United States and failing to register as foreign agents of Ukraine's former pro-Russian government. Manafort has agreed to an US$11.65 million bail deal that would result in his release from house arrest and electronic monitoring.
- Former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos, a Chicago-based international energy lawyer, pleaded guilty on October 30 to lying to FBI agents about contacts with people who claimed to have ties to top Russian officials. It was the first criminal charge alleging links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Facts about Michael Flynn
- Flynn was national security adviser for just 24 days, from January 20, when Trump took office, to February 13. Flynn was fired following disclosures that he had discussed US sanctions on Russia with Sergey Kislyak, Moscow's US ambassador, and misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
- On February 14, Trump asked then-FBI Director James Comey in an Oval Office meeting to end the agency's investigation into ties between Flynn and Russia, according to news media reports. Mr Trump, who fired Comey on May 9, later denied making such a request.
- Mr Trump had named the former Army lieutenant general to the national security post despite red flags about Flynn's Russian contacts and advocacy for warmer US relations with Moscow, which has been under US economic sanctions for years. Outgoing President Barack Obama had warned Mr Trump not to hire Flynn, who had been fired by the Democratic President in 2014.
- Flynn was an early and vociferous Trump supporter during the New York businessman's 2016 White House run. He made vitriolic appearances on the campaign trail, notably leading the Republican National Convention in chants of "Lock her up", referring to Hillary Clinton.
- In addition to Flynn's contacts with Russia, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of possible ties between the Trump election campaign and Moscow has expanded its probe to include Flynn's paid work as a lobbyist for a Turkish businessman in 2016, people with knowledge of the inquiry have told Reuters.