President Donald Trump changed his story Saturday on why he fired Michael Flynn as his national security adviser, now suggesting he knew at the time that Flynn had lied to the FBI as well as to Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russians during the presidential transition.
That was a turnabout from his initial explanations that Flynn had to go because he hadn't been straight with Pence about those contacts. Lying to the FBI is a crime, and one that Flynn acknowledged Friday in pleading guilty and agreeing to co-operate with the special counsel's Russia investigation.
Trump's tweet: "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"
I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!— @realDonaldTrump
Earlier, he emphasized that U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller's charges against his former national security adviser Michael Flynn indicated no collusion between his election campaign and the Russians.
"What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion," Trump told reporters after leaving the White House for a flight to New York, where he will attend a trio of fundraising events.
Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia and he agreed to co-operate with prosecutors delving into the actions of Trump's inner circle in 2016 before he took office.
Under the 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, Sergey Kislyak, just weeks before Trump took office.
Prosecutors said the two men discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia and that Flynn also asked Kislyak to help delay a UN vote seen as damaging to Israel. On both occasions, he appeared to be undermining the policies of outgoing President Barack Obama.
Trump's transition team knew: Prosecutors
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 UN vote.
Sources told Reuters that the "very senior" official who knew about Flynn's contact with Russia was Jared Kushner, a key member of Trump's transition team and now the president's senior adviser.
Kushner's lawyer, Abbe Lowell, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. He has previously said Kushner has voluntarily co-operated with all relevant inquiries and would continue to do so.
Other U.S. media reports identified former adviser K.T. McFarland as the person. Reuters was unable to verify the reports.
Tweet leaves unanswered questions
It's unclear now why Trump would cite lying to the FBI as a reason for firing Flynn. Doing so suggests the president knew at the time that Flynn had done something that is against the law, and therefore the investigation could not be as frivolous as he's been portraying.
It's also unclear how he would know that, if information about Russian contacts had not reached him, as he has been implying in his own defence.
The tweet prompted some Democrats to say it amounts to obstruction of justice by Trump. California congressman Ted Lieu, a Democrat, tweeted: "THIS IS OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE. @POTUS now admits he KNEW Michael Flynn lied to the FBI. Yet Trump tried to influence or stop the FBI investigation on #Flynn."
But it may not add up to a charge, Paul Brandus of West Wing Reports told CBC News Saturday.
"I'm not quite sure at this point if there's a clear smoking gun that would point to obstruction of justice," said Brandus, an independent journalist based in the White House. "It's just vague enough that he can probably wiggle his way out of it. We'll wait and see what happens."
Flynn left the White House in February, only acknowledging that he had given an incomplete account to Pence of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. After Trump forced Flynn out, he asked FBI Director James Comey to end the bureau's probe in the matter, according to Comey's account. Comey refused, and Trump fired him, too.
Trump has been publicly dismissive of Comey and of special counsel Robert Mueller's continuing investigation, and was often generous in his appraisal of Flynn, except to say his adviser could not stay on the job after misleading his vice president.
At the time, Pence said Trump was justified in firing Flynn because Flynn had lied to him. Neither Trump nor Pence indicated concern then that the FBI had not been told the true story.
Pence, who served as head of Trump's transition, has not publicly commented on Flynn's plea.
White House officials did not respond to questions Saturday about Trump's altered explanation as to why he fired Flynn.
'Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn' - Ty Cobb, White House lawyer
Flynn's decision to co-operate with Mueller's team marked a major escalation in a probe that has dogged the U.S. president since he took office in January.
Mueller's team is also looking at whether members of Trump's campaign may have sought to ease sanctions on Russia in return for financial gain or because Russian officials held some leverage over them, people familiar with the probe say.
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. 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.