The White House is trying very hard to get its story straight about what Donald Trump knew and when he knew it regarding Michael Flynn lying to the FBI.
On Saturday, the president sent out a tweet indicating that he had known Flynn lied to the FBI when he pressured his national security advisor into resigning on February 13. But since he then allegedly tried to pressure then-FBI Director James Comey into dropping the Flynn investigation on February 14, this would seem to have been an admission that he had committed obstruction of justice.
Saturday's tweet set off a frantic weekend of butt-covering by the White House, culminating in this CNN story on Monday trying to line up with the official story that everything is fine, there is nothing to see here:
White House counsel Donald McGahn told Trump that based on his conversation with then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates, he believed Flynn had not told the truth in his interview with the FBI or to Pence, the source said. McGahn did not tell the President that Flynn had violated the law in his FBI interview or was under criminal investigation, the source said.
Let's go back to the timeline for a moment. Flynn lied to the FBI in an interview on January 24. On both January 26 and 27, Yates went to the White House to warn McGahn that Flynn was compromised. As she later testified to Congress:
“We also told the White House Counsel that General Flynn had been interviewed by the FBI on February (sic) 24. Mr. McGahn asked me how he did and I declined to give him an answer to that. And we then walked through with Mr. McGahn essentially why we were telling them about this and the first thing we did was to explain to Mr. McGahn that the underlying conduct that General Flynn had engaged in was problematic in and of itself.”
McGahn then told the president that while Yates had not come right out and said so, he had inferred from what she told him that Flynn had lied to the FBI. Again, from CNN:
Yates did not share with McGahn “any description of what (the) FBI had asked Flynn or specifically what he had said,” the source told CNN.
“They didn't think they were in a position to decide whether he had committed a crime,” according to the source.
This newest line from the White House is both consistent with Yates's testimony in front of Congress and maybe in the administration's mind lets the president off the hook. After all, they can say no one in the White House knew for sure that Flynn had lied to the FBI but only suspected it.
It also follows the administration's awkward weekend attempts to deflect blame from Trump, both by claiming his lawyer had actually written the seemingly incriminating tweet and by floating a trial balloon that McGahn blamed Yates for the whole mess because she had not come right out and told him Flynn had committed a crime by lying to the FBI.
The problem for Trump is that ultimately this is all somewhat meaningless. Flynn's plea agreement admits that one of the phone calls with Russia's ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, he lied about had to do with sanctions against Russia. We know from a weekend New York Times story that Flynn, after making the call, told Trump's senior advisers who were at Mar-a-Lago with the then-president-elect about it.
Is it credible to believe that Trump's closest advisers never told him that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak at a time when one of the incoming administration's major priorities was relaxing those sanctions? Or that Flynn never told Trump or anyone around him that the FBI had questioned him about those calls?
The other issue here is timing. By this new account, Trump would have suspected that Flynn lied to the FBI by the end of January. Why, then, did he wait another two weeks before pressuring Flynn into resigning? And even if he only suspected Flynn had lied, he still leaned on the FBI director in a way that Comey felt there was no doubt Trump was trying to get him to shut down the investigation of Flynn.
In short, this new CNN story fails to answer the most important questions. As such, it is just another case of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.