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The coming American explosion

Scott Gilmore on why the Michael Flynn guilty plea is so momentous, and what it says about the political devastation soon to come
FILE- In this Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn gestures as he arrives with his son Michael G. Flynn, left, at Trump Tower in New York. Michael G. Flynn tweeted about the false idea that prompted a shooting at a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor. Vice President-elect Mike Pence acknowledged Tuesday, Dec. 6, that the younger Flynn was helping his father with scheduling and administrative items during the presidential transition but told CNN "that's no longer the case." (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
In this Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn gestures as he arrives with his son Michael G. Flynn, left, at Trump Tower in New York. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

On Friday morning General Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government. In the process, a fuse has been lit that may lead to the most significant political explosion in American history.

We have been expecting this moment for a long time. One of the peculiar things about the Russia scandal is that at the beginning it unfolded in the open. For example, the media almost immediately pointed out, as the campaign gained momentum, that it was staffed with several people having very questionable Russian links. And no one could avoid noticing the inexplicable regard Trump paid to Vladimir Putin, or the open interference in the election by Russian bots and hackers.

And then, as the official investigations began and the media began to pile on to the scandal, we learned something almost daily as the details continued to reveal themselves incrementally in front of us. As a result, much of what is new already seems old. We already “knew” that Flynn was in constant contact with the Russians, and we “knew” that his shifting story made it obvious he had been lying at various stages.

And anyone who has been paying attention concluded (in real time as it happened) that the incoming Trump administration had attempted to moderate the Russian reaction to Obama’s new round of anti-Putin sanctions. So, today, when it was definitively confirmed by Flynn that in late December of last year he made contact with the Russian ambassador to negotiate a response to the sanctions, and then subsequently lied about it, glancing over this news and moving on would be an understandable reaction. We already knew this. What’s next?

But that would be a mistake. We need to step back and look at the bigger picture for a moment. And if we do, we cannot fail to see the jaw-dropping significance of what is happening right now.

READ MORE: The president of the United States is unwell

It was immediately speculated, and quickly confirmed, that Flynn had cut a deal with investigators. The charges are relatively innocuous when we know the FBI likely has Flynn pinned down with several more serious charges, including conspiracy to commit kidnapping. The only reason that Robert Mueller, the former FBI director who is leading the investigation, would go easy on Flynn (and not charge his son at all in spite of his heavy involvement), is because they are getting something bigger in return. And, Flynn just released a statement saying he has agreed to cooperate with investigators. According to ABC News, that involves an offer to testify against the president himself for ordering him to contact the Russians.

Consider that again: the president’s own former national security advisor is reportedly willing to testify that Trump directed him to make contact with the leadership of America’s greatest rival, and other evidence implies Flynn and his colleagues wanted to hide this communication from even their own intelligence services, and that it involved Trump offering Russia something in return for past or future assistance. The implications of this are nothing short of incredible.

The president of the United States cannot be tried in a criminal court while in office. He can’t even be charged. But, just the accusation of wrongdoing on this scale, by a trusted source like the FBI, would be incredibly damaging to the president. After almost a year in office, he has been unable to accomplish anything of note. If Mueller reveals that he is implicated in the Russian scandal, it will fatally wound his presidency.

Even if he survives an impeachment process, it is hard to imagine him governing with any mandate for the remainder of his term. The Republican Party, too, could be savagely damaged if this blows up. How long would it take the American public to forgive them for their role in this? And then there are the institutions themselves, like the Justice Department and the FBI that have already been accused of being politicized; or Congress and the White House, which are demonstrating fallibilities that could not have been imagined even two years ago.

When Donald Trump entered politics, he quickly began to shock the system by threatening to lock up his rival, or asking Russia to hack her emails, or by denouncing America’s allies while defending Russia’s dictator. He kept tossing dynamite into the centre of the Washington establishment. Then the media have thrown on their own explosive revelations, like the dozens of secret meetings between Trump staff and Russian diplomats, intelligence agents and politicians. Congressional investigations got involved, and added a few bombs of their own to this growing heap in the centre of the National Mall, with testimony from campaign staff that Trump was well aware of these contacts. Then came the official FBI investigation. They have poured kegs of gunpowder onto the pile by indicting three people in the president’s inner circle, including his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and today his former national security advisor.

And now, at the bottom of the enormous mountain of explosives, we can see Mueller walking towards it, flicking his lighter, about to set off what may be the biggest political explosion in American history.