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Michael Flynn pleads guilty to lying to FBI, promised “full cooperation” and is prepared to testify that as a candidate, Donald Trump

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In a startling breakthrough for prosecutors investigating potential collusion between Russia and the Donald Trump presidential campaign, former national security adviser Michael Flynn announced on Friday that he was cooperating with prosecutors and ready to testify about Russian contacts.

After months of silence and invisibility, Flynn walked into a federal courthouse in Washington DC on Friday morning and pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI. The plea was part of a larger deal with special counsel Robert Mueller’s team, and strikes at the heart of the Trump White House.

The US president was uncharacteristically mute as the spectacle played out. The White House canceled a planned photoshoot in the Oval Office with the prime minister of Libya.

Flynn admitted that he lied in interviews with FBI agents shortly after the inauguration about conversations he had held with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak concerning US sanctions on Russia and other matters.

Flynn further described a chain of communication within Trump’s presidential transition team in which he received direction in December 2016 from a “very senior transition official” – unnamed in court documents – and consulted “senior members” of the team on what to say to Kislyak.

Because Trump was not in power at the time, that plotting could expose those involved to charges of working with foreign governments to undermine US policy. But the extent of Flynn’s potential testimony in the Russia matter was unknown and could carry other legal hazards for the White House.

Flynn acknowledged wrongdoing for the first time in a statement on Friday.

“It has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of treason,” Flynn said. “But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.”

He added: “My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the special counsel’s office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country.”

Trump’s lead personal lawyer on the case, Ty Cobb, sought to distance the president from his former ally, a key adviser during the 2016 presidential election whose name Trump floated briefly as a possible vice-presidential pick.

“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr Flynn,” Cobb said in a statement, which stated that Flynn served in the Trump administration for only 25 days and called Flynn a “former Obama administration official”.

Obama fired Flynn as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 and warned Trump against hiring him.

A report from CNN quoting unnamed White House officials as claiming that the Flynn-Kislyak contacts had been authorized by the Obama administration drew derision from former staffers.

Ned Price, the former National Security Council spokesman told the Guardian in an email: “There is no world in which the Obama administration would have authorized anyone to attempt to subvert the principle of ‘one President—and one foreign policy—at a time.’”

“Any suggestion otherwise by this White House is laughable, as are their other attempts to distance themselves from Michael Flynn, President Trump’s first and handpicked National Security Advisor,” Price said.

Attempts by the Trump camp to distance themselves from Flynn represented a hard reversal of the president’s previous embrace, and belied Flynn’s status as a member of the innermost circle of the Trump campaign, which he joined in February 2016. Just nine months ago, Trump intervened personally with then FBI director James Comey in an effort to deflect an investigation of Flynn, according to Comey.

Now it is knives out on both sides. As part of his plea deal, Flynn has agreed to be interviewed at any time by government agents and to submit to lie detector tests upon request. He faces a possible sentence of up to six months in prison in his guilty plea to the false statements charge.

Flynn falsely denied to investigators that he had asked Kislyak in a meeting during the presidential transition to refrain from escalating the situation after the United States imposed new sanctions on Russia, and falsely denied that he had asked the ambassador in a separate meeting to delay a vote on a UN resolution, according to court documents.

Flynn further failed to recall being told by Kislyak that Russia had decided to moderate its response to the new sanctions at Flynn’s request, the documents said.

Flynn was filmed walking into FBI headquarters on Friday morning. He ignored shouted questions from the media asking whether he had reached a deal with special counsel.

The retired three-star general, who had failed to declare payments from Turkish and Russian sources and who was reportedly under investigation for an alleged role in a kidnapping plot, had appeared vulnerable to much more serious charges than making false statements.

Anne Milgram, who has worked closely in the past with Mueller and his team as a former attorney general for the state of New Jersey and former federal prosecutor, said that prosecutors’ decision to charge Flynn with a relatively minor offense indicated that a deal for Flynn to cooperate with prosecutors had been struck.

“And that was very quick,” Milgram said in an email.

The Trump campaign has denied coordinating with Russia during and after the presidential campaign, even as evidence of at least 19 in-person meetings between the two sides has emerged and Mueller’s team has uncovered high-level conversations inside the campaign about the contacts.

Previously the special counsel has charged former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and aide Richard Gates, and former foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements, a similar charge to Flynn.

But Trump had until now seemed especially protective of Flynn, who unlike the others was part of his inner circle during the campaign, frequently introducing Trump at campaign events and working closely with members of Trump’s family, including son Donald Trump Jr and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Three news reports on Friday, from Bloomberg, NBC News and BuzzFeed, identified Kushner as the transition team member who had directed Flynn to act on the UN resolution denouncing Israeli settlements.

Flynn’s cooperation with prosecutors seemed potentially ominous for Kushner, who US intelligences sources said tried in one meeting with Kislyak to set up back-channel communications with Russians. Kushner has denied the accusation. The other person in the meeting was Flynn.

In one of Flynn’s most public outings during the campaign, he appeared at the Republican national convention in Cleveland and led the crowd in a chant of “Lock her up!” referring to Hillary Clinton and her handling of classified information on a private email account.

But it would be Flynn, and not Clinton, who would face criminal charges, and on Friday protesters outside the courthouse chanted “Lock him up!” as he left.

Comey, whom Trump fired in May, said that the president had asked him in February to drop an investigation into Flynn’s activities – the very investigation in which Flynn had, according to the charges, lied about a month earlier.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey quoted Trump as saying. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Flynn resigned after 24 days as national security adviser when US surveillance records came to light indicating that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, despite a public denial at the time by Vice-President Mike Pence that such a discussion had taken place.

Trump was not yet in office when Flynn made the request for Russia to block the UN resolution, a possible violation of Logan Act proscriptions against communicating with foreign governments and undermining US policy.

The resolution to denounce the Israeli settlements passed 14-0 on 23 December, with the United States abstaining.

Diaspora

U.S. Put 92 Somalis on a Deportation Flight, Then Brought Them Back

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Ninety-two Somali citizens were flown out of the United States under orders of deportation on Thursday, but their plane never made it to Somalia. The flight landed in the West African country of Senegal and, facing logistical problems, was rerouted back to the United States.

It was an unexpected, 5,000-mile backtrack for the migrants, some of whom have lived in the United States for years, or even decades, while on a list for deportation because they had entered the country without proper documentation.

In recent weeks, dozens of Somali citizens were transported from their homes in the United States — many were living in Minnesota — to Louisiana in preparation for the flight. A few, with the help of lawyers, managed to secure stays of removal.

The 92 on the plane got only as far as Senegal’s capital, Dakar, according to United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

In an emailed statement on Friday, the agency said it was notified that a relief flight crew was “unable to get sufficient crew rest due to issues with their hotel in Dakar,” so the aircraft and detainees spent time parked at the airport there. It added that “various logistical options were explored, and ultimately ICE decided to reschedule the mission to Somalia and return to the United States with all 92 detainees.”

Civilians helping a man who was injured in a suicide car bomb explosion in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital, in October. Credit Feisal Omar/Reuters

War, famine and disease have killed hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia since the central government collapsed in 1991. Militants, including members of the Shabab, an Islamist terrorist group, are still carrying out deadly attacks in the Horn of Africa country. A pair of truck explosions killed hundreds of people on one of the busiest streets in Mogadishu, the capital, in October. It was the deadliest attack the city had experienced in decades.

Kim Hunter, a lawyer whose firm represents two men who were on the flight, said it did not make sense to send her clients back to such a dangerous country.

“The security situation is abysmal,” she said on Thursday. “I, apparently, was naïve because I actually believed that following the Oct. 14 bombing, this flight might be suspended.”

Ms. Hunter learned on Friday that the flight had turned around and her clients’ deportations had been rescheduled, though it was unclear for when. An ICE spokeswoman said the agency does not provide that information in advance.

Ms. Hunter said she also had no advance notice when immigration officials recently transported five of her clients from their Minnesota homes. (They were first taken to Louisiana to prepare for their deportation.) Her law firm scrambled to secure stays of removal for the men and helped three avoid the flight.

Now that the other two have had their deportations delayed, Ms. Hunter said she would keep working to prevent their removal. Neither client has a criminal record, and both have been in the United States for more than a decade. One is married to a permanent resident and has children who are United States citizens.

“We’re inclined to think that this sort of failed flight reflects on the fact that more deportations are being carried out in haste and are perhaps not as well-planned as they might have been previously,” she added.

One Somali woman in Minnesota, who did not want to give her name for fear of getting her family in trouble with the authorities, said in a phone interview on Friday that her cousin was among those on the flight.

She said she had been desperate for answers since Wednesday, when her cousin called from Louisiana saying he was about to be deported. “I was very sad. I cried, and he told me not to make him cry,” she said, adding that it would be dangerous for him to land in Mogadishu because he had no connections there. “He hasn’t seen Somalia for the last 20 years.”

Many Somali citizens who are in the United States without documentation have been able to stay for years despite deportation orders because Somalia would not grant them the necessary travel documents. Mogadishu, which opened an embassy in Washington in 2015, appears to be cooperating with American officials to accept more of its citizens back.

The number of Somali people being deported from the United States has risen since 2014. During that fiscal year, 65 Somali citizens were removed from the United States. That number jumped to 120 the next year, and 198 the year after that.

In the fiscal year 2017, 521 Somali citizens were deported, according to the most recent report from ICE. A spokeswoman for the agency said there were five chartered flights to Somalia that year.

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U.S. Diplomat’s Resignation Signals Wider Exodus From State Department

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Departure of foreign service officer from East Africa reflects wider exodus of mid-level diplomats as morale continues to deteriorate under Tillerson and Trump.

An award-winning U.S. diplomat who was seen as a rising star at the State Department has issued a scathing resignation letter, accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the Trump administration of undercutting the State Department and damaging America’s influence in the world.

Elizabeth Shackelford, who most recently served as a political officer based in Nairobi for the U.S. mission to Somalia, wrote to Tillerson that she reluctantly had decided to quit because the administration had abandoned human rights as a priority and shown disdain for the State Department’s diplomatic work, according to her letter, obtained by Foreign Policy.

“I have deep respect for the career Foreign and Civil Service staff who, despite the stinging disrespect this Administration has shown our profession, continue the struggle to keep our foreign policy on the positive trajectory necessary to avert global disaster in increasingly dangerous times,” Shackelford wrote in her Nov. 7 letter, which is published in full below.

“With each passing day, however, this task grows more futile, driving the Department’s experienced and talented staff away in ever greater numbers.”

Her former colleagues said her departure — and the sentiments expressed in her letter — reflect a wider exodus of mid-career diplomats who have lost confidence in Tillerson’s management and the Trump administration’s approach toward diplomacy.

“She’s emblematic of what we’re losing across the board,” said one of Shackelford’s former State Department colleagues. “She is the best among us. We should not be losing the best among us. And that should concern people that we are,” said the former colleague.

In her letter, Shackelford said she was leaving with a “heavy heart” as she recognized the potential of the State Department’s mission. She said she was “shocked” when Tillerson appeared to cast doubt on the importance of human rights in remarks to department employees on May 3.

The State Department’s role in internal government debates also had “diminished,” she wrote, with the White House handing over authority to the Pentagon to shape the country’s foreign policy. Meanwhile, unfilled vacancies and proposed budget and staffing cuts had left the department adrift, with weakened influence inside the administration and on the ground, she wrote.

“The cost of this is visible every day in Mission Somalia, my current post, where State’s diplomatic influence, on the country and within our own interagency, is waning,” she wrote.

In the closing paragraph of her letter, Shackelford called on Tillerson “to stem the bleeding by showing leadership and a commitment to our people, our mission, and our mandate as the foreign policy arm of the United States.

“If you are unable to do so effectively within this Administration, I would humbly recommend you follow me out the door.”

When asked about the criticisms in the letter, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said: “We are not able to comment on the career choices of each person at the Department.”

“However, I can say that the Secretary has made clear that his objective is to make the State Department more efficient, more effective, and for staff to have a much more rewarding and satisfying career,” she added.

Tillerson has faced a wave of criticism from lawmakers and former senior diplomats about what they say is the dismantling of the State Department amid a hemorrhaging of top talent, a hiring freeze, and plummeting morale. He has firmly rejected the criticism, insisting the media mischaracterizes the rate of those leaving the department and that his plan to “redesign” the State Department is employee-driven and prioritizes the staff’s well-being.

“What it’s done,” Tillerson said of the hiring freeze on Friday, “was just a little bit of a blunt instrument to have everyone be a little more disciplined about filling their positions.”

But even his harshest critics say much of the blame for the troubled state of the foreign service rests with the president, who has shown an impatience with diplomacy and often sidelined Tillerson.

Shackelford’s sentiments also reflect a long-held but growing concern among diplomats and experts that U.S. policy is increasingly dominated and shaped by the military, particularly in Africa. The Pentagon has expanded its footprint and operations on the continent with additional funding while the State Department and U.S. AID face steep budget cuts and a dearth of ambassadors or top appointees in Washington.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a retired career diplomat and former assistant secretary of state for African affairs, said the U.S. military has a vital role to play in Africa and elsewhere but said the pendulum was swinging too far away from diplomacy. “You can’t just do military. You have to have the complement of diplomatic and development working alongside the military colleagues,” she told FP.

Somalia reflects a balance that clearly favors the military, as the State Department lacks the manpower and resources of its Pentagon counterparts. In recent months, the U.S. military has expanded its role with hundreds of troops and more strikes against al Shabab militants, while diplomatic efforts have ebbed following the departure of U.S. ambassador to Somalia Stephen Schwartz in October.

The staff at the U.S. mission have repeatedly asked Washington for permission to meet Somali political leaders at Villa Somalia, the presidential residence, but the State Department has rejected the request on security grounds. U.S. military officers are able to meet Somali officials at the presidential palace, and other foreign diplomatic missions regularly visit the building for talks.

Friday was Shackelford’s last day as a foreign service officer after nearly eight years in the State Department.

Born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi, the 38-year-old Shackelford graduated first in her class at the University of Pittsburgh Law School. She worked at a law firm, then the consulting company Booz Allen on foreign aid projects before joining the foreign service in 2010.

Shackelford distinguished herself in South Sudan for overseeing the evacuation of 1,000 Americans and other foreign nationals when violence erupted in Juba in December 2013. For her leadership skills and crisis planning in the evacuation effort, she received a department-wide Barbara W. Watson award for consular excellence.

During her stint in South Sudan, Shackelford worked to document and focus attention on human rights abuses, according to those she worked with and a personal statement she submitted as part of an employee evaluation. She cultivated contacts with South Sudanese civil society organizations and met with victims and witnesses of atrocities committed in the country’s conflict. Convinced that there could be no lasting peace without coming to terms with crimes committed on both sides, she co-wrote a dissenting cable backed by some of her fellow diplomats making that argument.

“Her view was if we don’t deal with accountability now, whatever peace that’s achieved is going to be temporary,” said another former colleague, who worked with her in Juba. “She made it her mission to get human rights material out the door.”

Shackelford is not alone in accusing the Trump administration of backsliding on America’s support for human rights and democracy over the past ten months. Republican Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Ben Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote a letter to the president on Friday accusing his administration of failing to assert America’s commitment to human rights.

The lawmakers wrote that “for much of the past year, our national voice on international human rights issues has been largely silent.”

But Deputy Secretary John Sullivan told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Thursday that in a recent tour of Africa, he repeatedly raised human rights concerns with governments in Ethiopia and Sudan, saying it was a crucial element in the fight against terrorist threats.

“The United States continues to emphasize respect for human rights as a fundamental part of our counterterrorism strategy,” Sullivan told lawmakers.

Six months ago, when Shackelford began considering leaving the foreign service, her mentors and colleagues encouraged her to stay the course, telling her she had a promising career ahead of her and that the difficulties would pass, she told FP.

But in a sign of plunging morale in the foreign service, when she spoke to those same colleagues two months ago about resigning, she got a much different response.

“It had completely changed to a person,” she said. “Nobody tried to talk me out of it. Everybody said, ‘yep, I get it.’”

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