WASHINGTON — In the days before he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, and as he braced for the public revelation that he’d morphed from government target to government cooperator, Michael Flynn was reveling in the pleasures of a new grandchild, swapping cheerful observations about babies with a longtime friend and fellow grandfather.
At the same time, President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser also was lamenting the emotional toll of the criminal investigation he was facing, another friend recalls.
Flynn made clear “he was tired of the constant barrage of either people trying to contact him and his family, or the press and the coverage they were getting. He was ready for that to be over,” said Thomas A. Heaney Jr., a retired Army colonel who has known Flynn since childhood and spoke to him two days before the guilty plea last month.
People close to Flynn described to The Associated Press the pressures of the past year as investigators with special counsel Robert Mueller not only zeroed in on him but also intensely examined the dealings of one of his sons, Michael G. Flynn. The conversations offer a window into his thinking in the period before he entered his plea, which requires him to cooperate with Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with Trump’s campaign.
A chance to end the case through a single-count guilty plea was almost certainly the most favorable outcome possible, especially since the aggressive, wide-ranging nature of Mueller’s inquiry made criminal prosecution a near-inevitability and a tough prison sentence a vivid possibility. Even before Mueller’s appointment, the FBI had been investigating Flynn’s conduct, including his conversations with the Russian ambassador and payments from a Turkish businessman for lobbying work.
In an indication of the value of his cooperation, prosecutors charged him only with false statements and set a guideline range of zero to 6 months in prison. His son, who had a baby last spring and worked alongside his father on the Turkish lobbying and other matters during the campaign, was notably not charged.
Flynn’s lawyer, Robert Kelner, declined to comment for this story.
The pressure on Flynn, 58, and his family was evident as prosecutors made him central to their investigation into Russia and the Trump campaign. He was the first White House official charged in the inquiry. A legal defense fund was formed to defray costs. And a cascade of negative headlines, some for conduct never proven or charged and in some instances strenuously denied, torpedoed the reputation of a retired Army lieutenant general who a few years earlier had led combat zone military intelligence efforts.
After admitting guilt, Flynn, one of nine children from a close Rhode Island family, issued a statement saying his plea and cooperation “reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country.”
It’s clear the publicity had taken a toll.
“He wanted all of this to stop,” Heaney says. “If there were no bounds, if people were going to continue to make unsubstantiated claims against him and the things he had done, he was tired of it.”
As a parent, Heaney added, “you’re always looking to take care of your children” and “under these circumstances, Mike pretty much would want to be able to shield his family and I think that’s part of what he’s doing here.”
Michael Ledeen, another close friend who co-authored with Flynn, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” said Flynn seemed delighted after Thanksgiving about the birth of Flynn Jr.’s baby. But Ledeen also detected stress, saying Flynn told him his wife’s mother was ill and how he was planning to sell his home in the Washington area to move to Rhode Island.
“He said it was a terrible time for him,” Ledeen said.
Though it’s not clear what information Flynn is prepared to provide, his cooperation with Mueller could cause a fissure in a relationship with Trump that had been strong.
Rocky Kempenaar, a childhood friend who said he saw Flynn in November, said he warned him months earlier to be careful about Trump.
“Just be careful, Mike. I don’t want you to get into trouble,” Kempenaar said he told him. “He said, ‘Rock, what surprised me is how loyal of a guy he is.’”
“You got to be one in a million, because I don’t know anyone else he’s been loyal to,” Kempenaar said he replied. “He just laughed.”
The guilty plea marked a stunning fall for Flynn, a career Army man who enjoyed a prestigious job as a military intelligence officer in Afghanistan and Iraq and was rewarded in 2012 with a post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the military’s spy organization. He lasted two years, criticized by Obama administration officials for his management and temperament, and was forced to retire in 2014.
Flynn’s post-military career was a succession of consulting jobs and small defense contractor directorships. But his profile shot higher as a Trump campaign surrogate, where he led the Republican National Convention crowd in anti-Hillary Clinton “lock her up” chants, something Kempenaar said Flynn now regrets.
His selection as Trump’s national security adviser, a position that requires synthesizing different policy options for the president’s consideration, surprised some former colleagues from Afghanistan, who recall him as stubborn, opinionated and polarizing.
“He was like the bad boy in 7th grade. You really want to be on his team because it’s really fun, and it’s kind of transgressive,” said Sarah Chayes, who worked in Afghanistan as a foreign policy adviser. “If you’re a really good teacher, you want that kid in the class because it adds a really interesting dynamic. But it means you have to be totally on top of him and rein him in.”
Flynn has kept a low-profile since his White House ouster in February, which came as officials said he had misled them about conversations with the Russian ambassador. He’s split time between northern Virginia and Rhode Island, where’s he’s been spotted surfing on a beach near where he grew up. He still enjoys the support of old friends, who see him as an administration scapegoat.
“The Flynn I know is a truth-teller,” said Ledeen, who hopes his friend can “continue to play a role in policy discussions and in understanding the world because he’s a person who revolutionized American military intelligence.”
It’s not clear what his future holds, but friends who’ve seen him in the past month say he seems determined to end the scrutiny and move on.
Two days before he walked into a Washington courtroom, Flynn changed his Facebook cover photo, for the first time in months, to a potentially hopeful image: a rising sun over the Atlantic Ocean.
McDermott and Smith reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Associated Press writer Chad Day in Washington contributed.