May 4, 2020

Is General Michael Flynn guilty?

Is General Michael Flynn guilty?

Plus, a question about opposition research.

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Today’s read: 10 minutes.

The Michael Flynn case, how we vet presidential candidates and story about hazard pay.

President Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Photo: Gage Skidmore


Mike Pence. The Vice President had a major walk back this weekend, apologizing for not wearing a mask in public during his visit to the Mayo Clinic. Criticism erupted after photos emerged of Pence — who heads the coronavirus task force team — standing amongst doctors and patients all wearing masks while he was not. “I should have worn a mask at the Mayo Clinic,” Pence said. Click.

Florida. One of the United States’ busiest and most politically diverse states is reopening this week, with restaurants and stores getting the green light to operate at 25% capacity starting today. Schools, bars and gyms will remain closed for the foreseeable future. Click.

Trump counterpunches. After weeks of devastating ads being released by everyone from Biden to the Republicans against Trump, the president has responded with an ad of his own. The 7-figure spot features governors like Andrew Cuomo (New York) and Gavin Newsome (California) heaping praise on Trump and the federal government for its response to coronavirus. It also has a dose of positivity and a theme of economic recovery for the U.S. You can view it below:

What D.C. is talking about.

Mike Flynn. Last week, new revelations in the Mike Flynn case set off days of debate in Washington D.C. that have continued into the weekend. Flynn was President Trump’s former national security adviser who had contacts with a Russian ambassador during the president’s transition into office (when Obama was still serving but after Trump had been elected). He was a central figure in the “Russia collusion” narrative and was eventually indicted on charges of lying to federal agents about those contacts. He pleaded guilty in 2018 to the charges and then vacated that plea in January. Last week, we got a clearer picture why: Flynn’s lawyers claimed that newly unsealed documents show the FBI tried to set him up when they interviewed him. “What is our goal? Truth/Admission or to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired?” one note read. Flynn has become a symbol amongst many on the right of the so-called “deep state” and he has been lobbying President Trump for a pardon from the charges.

What the right is saying.

The FBI was getting ready to shut down its investigation of Flynn on January 4th, 2017, after spending a year looking into accusations he had ties to Russia or was helping the campaign collude with Russia in the 2016 election. They struck out, and in the 11th hour with the investigation set to end, someone at the top of the FBI food chain asked agents on the case to hold off on closing it. Then, they sent agents to interview Flynn, without a lawyer present, and with the explicit intent to try to catch him in a lie about violating an obscure and archaic law that never gets enforced. At the same time, the FBI leaks evidence of Flynn’s “crime” to the press (recordings of his conversation with the Russian ambassador) to throw gasoline on the narrative the Trump campaign colluded with Russian actors in 2016. In doing so, they acknowledge to each other that Flynn’s fate will be reduced to either losing his job or going to jail — or both.

The Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel wrote that the new documents were “stunning in themselves” but the “totality of Mr. Flynn’s treatment shocks the conscience.” Strassel said the FBI “engineered this ‘crime’” and law enforcement’s abuse of power in the Flynn case has continued to emerge in dribs and drabs, making it clear the FBI entrapped him. Eli Lake wrote in Bloomberg that the new documents show it was clear the FBI agents were “unsure of the purpose of the interview” — whether to catch Flynn in a lie or get him to admit to violating the Logan Act, a 221-year-old law prohibiting citizens from conducting foreign policy that has never resulted in a conviction. Another set of handwritten notes adds to the evidence that the FBI was worried if the White House found out Flynn was being interviewed under false pretexts it’d become furious (former FBI Director James Comey had already admitted that interviewing Flynn without White House counsel present was not something he could have or would have done in a different, better-organized administration).

What the left is saying.

It’s all standard procedure. The cherry-picked note that has been featured in every news article sounds far worse out of context than it does in the context of everything that was around it. What the notes actually show is the FBI agents had a rigorous internal debate about whether they were going to show Flynn the evidence they had against him during the interview or if they would conceal it. Basically, the FBI agents were expecting Flynn to lie about his contacts because the evidence of wrongdoing was so strong they knew he’d either lie or confess — that’s not entrapment, it’s just having a gameplan going into the interview. Entrapment is when someone is “induced to commit a crime,” Norman Eisen wrote in The New York Times. Instead, this was the FBI “balancing his rights with the need to learn the truth and assessing how to do so without rattling him. Far from entrapment, that is standard operating procedure.”

Remember: agents had recordings of Flynn’s call with the Russian ambassador. They knew the call happened and they knew Flynn had already lied about it publicly. But interviewing him was still necessary to find out who instructed the call to happen, what happened after the call, or whether there were other phone calls that happened. The right’s entire argument rests on the idea that Flynn was either innocent or so intimidated by the FBI that he was “entrapped” into lying. “Flynn was a military leader who rose to the rank of lieutenant general, led troops in combat and became national security adviser. The idea that he was so intimidated by a couple of FBI agents during a consensual interview that he simply had no choice but to lie is laughable,” Randall Eliason wrote in The Washington Post. Also in WaPo, Aaron Blake broke down the charges and — while mostly landing with the left — did write that the note pondering whether the goal was to get Flynn fired is a very bad look for the FBI: “It’s one thing to choose between letting Flynn admit his wrongdoing or lie about it,” Blake wrote, “it’s another to suggest a potential aim is his removal from his White House post.”

My take.

Flynn isn’t an innocent, naive actor here. Remember: he’s a decorated military veteran who was about to be overseeing the entire United States intelligence operation, and unlike many of the people Trump chose for cabinet positions — he actually had relevant experience for the job, even if the quality of his character had been debated. The idea that Flynn didn’t understand the risk of accepting an interview with the FBI without a lawyer, didn’t understand he could refuse to talk or didn’t know the risk of lying to FBI agents is absurd. It’s also important to note that the Trump administration didn’t know about the conversations Flynn had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which was actually part of why Flynn lost his job: Vice President Pence came out saying the conversations never happened, but Flynn had lied to Pence about them, too. When the administration found out, they cut him loose.

However, equally absurd is the notion that Flynn’s initial crimes were serious. As I wrote in response to a reader question from February, The Logan Act accusations are stupid. They all stem from an archaic law that came about in 1799 after George Logan tried to negotiate peace between the United States and France independent of the federal government. The ruling Federalist Party was so enraged it created the act to punish anyone who tried a similar thing. Nobody has ever been charged or will be charged with violating the act because it’s just a political game the right and left both use to try to make the other side look criminal (I wrote about it in February when conservatives were accusing Democrat Chris Murphy of violating the act).

This entire episode is one of those moments that reveal how the world has been turned upside down in the Trump era. Before Trump, almost every major lefty and righty in this mess would be making the opposite argument they are now: conservatives would be defending the integrity of the FBI and the left would be blasting the FBI for shady investigative tactics.

Yes, the FBI was using “standard operating procedure” and yes, they didn’t technically “entrap” Flynn. Fine. But that’s the whole point: this is the standard operating procedure at the FBI. The left used to care about federal agents abusing their power, but they seem to love it when it supports their “resistance” against Trump. As Eli Lake asked: “If the FBI had plotted to catch National Security Adviser Susan Rice in a lie in order to create pressure for President Barack Obama to fire her, would Democrats have reveled in her misfortune as they have reveled in Flynn’s?” Of course not. All of this, too, comes after the Inspector General report revealed the FBI was regularly holding back exculpatory evidence from the federal surveillance court, where they go to get permission from judges to monitor U.S. citizens. In other words, the FBI was hiding evidence that showed members of Trump’s team were innocent in order to get permission from a judge to surveil them. At the same time, Flynn gets caught up (allegedly) in U.S. spy agencies monitoring Russia, and then the FBI uses that surveillance to go after him.

Many pundits and writers on the left have long blasted the FBI or the NSA for surveillance programs that encroach on civil liberties, and they were right to. They’ve blasted the FBI for shady investigative practices that seem to corner otherwise innocent actors, and they were right to. They’ve blasted the FBI for unevenly applying standards for criminal behavior, and they were right to. It’d be refreshing if they held the line on those things now and conceded Flynn was not treated fairly. And it’d be equally refreshing if the right carried these lessons and this defense of Flynn consistently into how it viewed our criminal justice system as a whole and the many defendants across the U.S. every day who are forced into plea deals when they’re innocent or are simply victims of law enforcement misconduct.


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Reader mail.

Last week, I answered a question in the newsletter about the purpose, cost and history of military flyovers. I got two notes from members of the military in response to the newsletter. One came from Jessica in Monterey, California, who (along with her husband) is on active duty in the Navy (her husband is an aviator). First, Jessica pushed back on the notion expressed in the LA Times that flyovers are “atrocious training.”

“Low-altitude passes take considerable training and practice to master, and the coordination between pilots to fly in formation at such a close distance and altitude, the coordination of the airspace, and the coordination of the ATC (Air Traffic Control) is considerable! Not to mention there is also a guy on the ground at the stadium (or wherever) coordinating. It is excellent and necessary training for all these entities. There is so much involved that the average person does not see or ever learn about.”

She added that “the whole reason the Navy's Blue Angels exist is for recruiting, and maybe even more importantly, a chance for the American taxpayer to see and learn about what the Navy's foremost fighting flying machine looks like and is capable of.” She said an actual Blue Angels show would be an informative experience for Americans, and it’d be “incredibly difficult not to leave feeling proud and impressed by our nation's best pilots and aircraft.” Finally, she said, with the shows being canceled this year, the hours pilots are logging to do flyovers across the U.S. and encourage people in these tough times are “hours they would have spent in the air anyway. Pilots have to log a certain amount of hours and time in the aircraft to be current and proficient in their skills and to respond to any sort of tasking as needed.”

Noa from Sacramento, California also wrote in. He is a recent Air Force Academy graduate and starts pilot training later this month, but has also been working as a recruiter. He said he felt everything in the newsletter was “spot-on” but wanted to add a similar sentiment as Jessica. “One thing that could have been added was the fact that in addition to being a morale booster, you did say people enjoyed them, they are a way to showcase the top aircraft in the world along some of our nation’s finest pilots. It allows people to somewhat understand/see what/where their tax dollars are going to. Flyovers allow people to understand the speed, power, and capabilities of these planes. Furthermore, oftentimes these air shows are the only interaction many people have with any members of the military. In my experience talking with people at airshows, seeing the jets is a positive memory.”

Your questions, answered.

Reminder: Reader questions are a big part of Tangle. To ask a question, all you have to do is reply to this email and write in. Give it a try!

Q: Isaac, with the Biden (and Trump) womanizing accusations and the Ukraine issues for Biden, wouldn't it be helpful for potential presidential candidates to be vetted early or prior to declaring as a candidate (similarly to what Brett Kavanaugh endured)?

— Karen, West Chester PA

Tangle: The process of vetting presidential candidates is actually pretty interesting — and changing right before our eyes. I understand the feeling that a candidate like Biden almost seems like he hasn’t been vetted, but the truth is he has. In fact, potential candidates like Biden are vetted in much the same way Brett Kavanaugh was — even by their own teams. The major difference is they don’t have to sit down for a Senate confirmation hearing and have all the background on them brought to light in a condensed trial. Instead, they face the vetting from the public and the press over the course of months or years.

By now, many Americans are familiar with “oppo research,” or “opposition research,” done during presidential campaigns. In the modern era, this is really the heart and soul of vetting candidates, but it’s also largely misunderstood by the American public.

When someone hears “opposition research,” what they usually think is “investigate.” It conjures up thoughts of spies or probes or interviews. But oppo research is typically just resurfacing stuff that’s already public record or digging into the past of whoever you are gathering info on. The Ukraine story around Biden, for example, was really just recirculating stories that were six or seven years old. There wasn’t much new investigative reporting related to Biden — it was just old clips of him talking about strongarming Ukrainian government officials that were being cut and recirculated in the context of the news that was happening around Trump. What was new was how those stories related to the issue of Trump’s impeachment, the image of Ukraine, and the history of leaders pressuring Ukraine’s government into doing things.

Similarly, the sexual assault allegations against Biden were not unvetted issues. Biden’s history of making both women and men uncomfortable was well-documented and mocked when he was Vice President and a senator. But all the vetting in the world wouldn’t have prevented the situation he’s in now, as Tara Reade’s recent allegations were news to everyone. She had never alleged anything more than comments or touching that made her uncomfortable. The sexual assault allegations were entirely new.

Still, the process of gathering and disseminating information on a political opponent has become even more of a focus in recent years. The Trump-Russia collusion theory was born out of the political opposition research firm who was doing work for Republicans battling Trump and then Hillary Clinton. That story revealed an underbelly of oppo research that went beyond just publicly available information, and it showed us a world many reporters are still trying to fully understand.

My research assistant found an awesome article in FiveThirtyEight from 2016 where reporter Hilary Krieger interviews Alan Huffman, one of the most notorious opposition research experts in the country. Huffman explains that oppo research is sort of the intersection of digging up public records and entertaining every crazy story you hear. In essence, it’s tracking down rumors that are damaging about your political opponents and then trying to find the documentation to back those rumors up. And it’s basically how every politician is vetted in the modern era.

Interestingly, it also raises the specter of having to vet yourself. Most well-organized campaigns have taken to doing oppo research on their own candidates, that way they are prepared for attacks from the other side. That’s because when oppo research is obtained, it’s not just dumped into the public willy nilly. Instead, political operatives hold onto certain information for a rainy day — or time its release through the press when they know it’d be most advantageous for them.

In fact, as Huffman says in his interview, it’s more likely that we know less about these political candidates than they or their opponents know about each other. Certain things are considered “beyond the pale” of what’s okay in politics. For instance, opposition researchers may come across intimate details of a candidate’s divorce during their digging — but if that research can’t be directly tied to a candidate’s fitness, it’s a no-go for public consumption.

All this is to say: presidential candidates are vetted to the same degree someone like Brett Kavanaugh is. Many, in fact, are vetted more thoroughly. The only major difference is the way that information makes it to us, the public. And for politicians, it usually comes out in the most damaging way possible.

A story that matters.

Businesses are starting to reassess the bonus pay for hourly employees on the front lines and it’s setting up a major backlash. Companies boosted wages for workers like grocery store clerks under the “hero pay” or “hazard pay” monikers, and now many of those companies are reassessing. Just one in four U.S. companies that require employees on-site are offering hazard pay, according to an April survey, and as the economic conditions turn sour even those companies are unsure if they can keep it up. Local governments are trying to step in, like in New York City, where city council introduced a package that would require companies with more than 100 employees to provide bonus pay for any nonsalaried staff that was still coming in. “Some employees have welcomed the money, while others say it isn’t enough to mitigate the risks they face on the job as the coronavirus spreads in the U.S.” Many, now, are demanding more of it. Click.


  • 100,000. The new estimated number of coronavirus deaths in the U.S., according to President Trump, just weeks after saying there would be about 60,000.
  • 67,000. The number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War.
  • 67,781. The number of Americans who have now died of coronavirus.
  • 1 in 6. The number of U.S. nursing homes that have reported a coronavirus infection.
  • $25,000. The price of admission to a recent virtual fundraiser for Joe Biden.
  • 36%. The percentage of Democratic voters who said Elizabeth Warren was their top choice for Vice President, highest of any candidate.
  • 65%. The percentage of Americans who support temporarily blocking immigration to the United States during the coronavirus pandemic.

Have a nice day.

This isn’t my typical have-a-nice-day section, but I’m going to highlight it anyway: over the weekend, I caught up on my podcast listening and finally caught last week’s episode about states reopening. In it, The New York Times’ Michael Barbaro interviews Phil Campbell, the vice president of a pest control company who recently protested against Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. Then he interviews Gov. Whitmer. It’s one of the few mainstream pieces of news that I felt reasonably and fairly portrayed both sides of the argument about reopening the states, and I think both Campbell and Whitmer were able to discuss the issue with empathy and fairness for the opposition. It’s worth the listen and it was a refreshing bit of coverage on the topic. Click.

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