ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The White House can no longer say that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation involves minor figures or activity unrelated to Donald Trump's campaign or his presidency. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn today pleaded guilty in federal court. He admitted to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia, and he's cooperating fully with investigators. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. Hello, Tamara.
TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: Flynn pleaded guilty to a count of lying to the FBI. Again, what specifically are investigators saying that he lied about?
KEITH: So there are two separate back-and-forths between Flynn and the then-Russian ambassador to the U.S, Sergey Kislyak. Both happened during the transition. The first, around December 22, concerned a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. According to court documents a, quote, "very senior" Trump transition team official directed Flynn to make contact with foreign governments, including Russia, to persuade them to postpone or block that security council resolutions.
SIEGEL: So that's one back and forth.
SIEGEL: The other one?
KEITH: That came later that same month when the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Russia in response to its election interference. And court documents say Flynn reached out to Kislyak and urged Russia not to respond, to wait until Trump took office. Later, Kislyak got back in touch with Flynn and told him that Russia had decided not to retaliate in response to Flynn's request. The documents also make it clear that Flynn wasn't acting alone. Senior transition team officials were coordinating with Flynn about what to say.
SIEGEL: Those senior transition officials are not named in court documents today, but do we have any idea who they are?
KEITH: Well, we've been trying to piece it together from pool reports at that time. And what one person familiar with the transition team told NPR was that there were many people involved, and those names will sound familiar. You have Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who was quite involved with the U.N. Security Council resolution. Other names include Steven Miller, K.T. McFarland, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus. They were all with Trump at Mar-a-Lago to discuss national security and his inaugural address around the time that those sanctions were announced by the Obama administration, which is to say there are lots of people currently and formerly involved with the Trump administration.
SIEGEL: Well, what's the Trump White House saying about all this today?
KEITH: Well, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the Mueller investigation, is downplaying the role that Flynn played in the administration, saying he was only national security adviser for 25 days. Quote, "nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn."
But Flynn didn't just plead guilty to lying to the FBI. He also agreed to fully cooperate with investigators, which means he has information on someone higher up in the food chain that investigators want to get to. We don't know how high up, but we can say that in the past, President Trump himself has said that he didn't direct Flynn to have those contacts but that it wouldn't have been illegal. This was the president - some tape from February.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: So it certainly would have been OK with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn't doing it. I didn't direct him, but I would have directed him because that's his job.
KEITH: So one person close to the White House insisted to me today that instead of fretting about Flynn, Trump's team was fully focused on the Senate vote on the tax bill. But the President also abruptly canceled a photo op shortly after that plea agreement was announced.
SIEGEL: Tam, do you have any sense of where this goes from here?
KEITH: Well, no. I...
SIEGEL: That's the long answer.
KEITH: Yeah, that's the long answer. The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner, who's helping lead the Senate investigation into the Russian election interference, was asked about that earlier today, and this is what he said.
MARK WARNER: My hope is that General Flynn will tell everything he knows and tell why he was having these contacts with Russians, who directed these contacts. I think it goes well beyond the fact that he just lied to the FBI.
KEITH: And here's the thing about the documents released by Mueller's team today. They provide clues, but they aren't exhaustive. So these two events that we're hearing about may not be all that they're looking at - probably isn't all they're looking at.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's White House correspondent, Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.
KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.