It is unwise to speculate too rashly on what special counsel Robert Mueller’s sentencing memo for General Michael Flynn means at this point, especially since the most tantalizing parts are redacted. But three things are important.
First, it’s good that prosecutors don't want Flynn to go to jail. For people incensed about the Russia scandal, and I am one of them, it will be difficult to accept that the man who called for locking up Hillary Clinton (and who famously said that “if I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today") will escape incarceration for serious crimes against the United States.
But vengeance is not justice. As the sentencing memo noted, “senior government leaders should be held to the highest standards,” but also that Flynn had “accepted responsibility for his unlawful conduct” and was clearly cooperating with Mueller. Unlike the other rogues, liars, and halfwits caught by Mueller, Flynn lived a distinguished life of service before he went off the rails and got sucked into the morality-destroying vortex that continuously surrounds Donald Trump.
More important, America is already living through an agonizing, slow-motion crisis of government with the Russia investigation and it is only going to get worse. The country does not need the added spectacle of a decorated three-star general going to prison in an orange jumpsuit. If Flynn’s complete cooperation means that Americans are spared this painful sight, and instead will see a senior officer who violated his oath now helping a former FBI director to unravel a nest of scoundrels and traitors at the core of the government of the United States of America, so much the better.
Flynn is making amends and helping his country
These are not easy words for me to write. I was a fierce critic of Flynn’s alarming ties to the Russians, even though I live in the general’s hometown and I know how highly regarded he is in our community even today. I believe his closeness to figures like the Russian president himself was deeply damaging to our country and that his role in helping the Russian intelligence services to penetrate the Trump campaign and the Trump White House was a disgrace.
And yet, if Mueller is avowing that Flynn has decided to make amends and help his country at this terrible moment of an unprecedented national scandal, then all of us, as citizens, are better off without the needless imprisonment of a hero whose blistered ego and poor judgment led him to disaster.
Second, we should realize that the redactions are a positive sign in themselves. Mueller and other Justice Department agencies are holding back details that pertain to multiple investigations underway by multiple offices. This means Mueller has found important matters pertaining not only to Russia and possible collusion, but that he has uncovered criminal matters that need referral to other agencies, all of which will continue their work even if Mueller is fired tomorrow.
By contrast, a lightly redacted report, detailing only a few instances of lying, to be punished with a light touch as a reward for fessing up and saving the taxpayers expense and heartburn, would suggest that Mueller was ready to wrap up without much to show for his efforts.
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The idea that Mueller is out of gas, of course, was the canned response waiting at the White House. When MSNBC’s Hallie Jackson called the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, he said of Mueller, "They don't have bupkes" (Yiddish for “nothing”). Giuliani is role-playing the mob game to the end; one expects him to emerge, like Robert DeNiro in The Untouchables, blustering that “You got nothing. You're nothing but a lot of talk and a badge!"
But Rudy’s rambling wishcasting isn’t remotely close to what happened. Flynn, we find from the documents, met with Mueller 19 times. This means hours upon hours of interviews. Neither we nor the president’s lawyers know what Flynn had on the rest of the Trump Team, but Flynn’s cooperation on those matters was, as the memo says, “substantial.” And that, in turn, means everyone in the White House should be in a cold sweat by now, wondering how many of their names and activities are hiding behind a carefully drawn line of black marker.
Third, Mueller has left clues about where he might go. Flynn provided “firsthand information about the content and context of interactions between the transition team and Russian government officials,” the report says — with further details redacted. But this likely means Mueller believes Flynn, and could be using Flynn’s statements to check the veracity of others in the White House.
Finally, it is important to note how the situation with Flynn differs from the ongoing tug of war with Paul Manafort, the careful reeling in of Roger Stone, the backhanded slap into Junior Criminal Camp for George Papadopoulos, and the quick and easy disposal of the other miscreants who have pled and made their deals.
Mueller signals he's a better bet than Trump
Flynn cooperated early and cooperated extensively, and for that, he has received gentle treatment and a chance to get his life back. The others have been acting smart enough only to realize that they need to be scared of a lot more people than just Mueller. Those who are reversing their plea deals and brazenly shooting their mouths off might be trying to send signals to the president, who could pardon them from a life in jail. They may also, however, be trying to send signals to others, outside of America, who might be thinking of inflicting a more severe and final punishment.
Mueller could be sending a signal, too, one that promises leniency for cooperators and the screws for the hard cases. The president can dangle pardons, but his former lawyer Michael Cohen, among others, might have stories to tell about the reliability and loyalty of one Donald J. Trump, and what his promises are worth. Mueller may look like the better bet for at least some of the more intelligent people seeking a way out.
This whole business is not over. But for his part in this sordid tragedy, Flynn only had one honorable course open to him once he was caught. He took it, and returned, as part of his legal reckoning, to serve his country. Whether others will be so wise, or whether they would have to balance their cooperation against the chance of living to see another birthday, is an open question.
More documents are due this week. Likely there are many more coming later — that no one, including the president, knows about. We are not yet even to the top of this roller-coaster.
Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the Naval War College and an instructor at the Harvard Extension School, is the author of "The Death of Expertise." The views expressed here are solely his own. Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Michael Flynn is making amends. That's good for America and the Mueller investigation.