Deciphering Biden's confusing comments about Michael Flynn

Posted Saturday, 23 May 2020 ‐ CNN

Washington (CNN)Former Vice President Joe Biden is facing new questions about his role in the Russia investigation, and even though there is essentially no evidence of his wrongdoing, his seemingly contradictory comments have muddied the waters and prolonged the conversation. In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has injected a heavy dose of conspiracy theories into the 2020 campaign by linking Biden to his claims of a "deep state" plot against his presidency. There are literally reams of records -- like court filings and sworn testimony -- that shed light on the complicated backstory. Here's a breakdown of Trump's far-fetched accusations, Biden's wobbly responses to basic questions, and the facts you need to know.  What are we talking about? The  basic premise of Trump's baseless conspiracy theory is that former President Barack Obama and his aides took unprecedented steps in 2016 and 2017 to abuse the powers of the FBI and US intelligence agencies to investigate Trump's campaign, spy on his associates, and hobble his presidency.  Specifically, Trump has claimed these surreptitious efforts targeted Michael Flynn, his first national security adviser, and that "Biden knew" about it, which the evidence doesn't support. To further link Biden alleged wrongdoing against Flynn, the Trump administration declassified sensitive information about US intelligence reports that mentioned Flynn during the transition. Biden or one of his staffers accessed at least one of these reports, which Trump now says proves his theory. The FBI investigated Flynn not because of a "deep state" plot, but because of concerns about his unusual phone calls with the Russian ambassador during the transition, and because he and other Trump officials publicly lied about those conversations. In the early stages of the investigation, the FBI was doing counterintelligence work to flesh out  Flynn's ties to the Russian government and understand the scope of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.Flynn told several lies to the FBI when they questioned him about the calls, putting himself in serious legal jeopardy, because it's illegal to lie to the FBI. He pleaded guilty in December 2017 to one count of lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with special counsel Robert Mueller. How has Biden responded? For his part, Biden has largely avoided addressing the conspiracies around the opaque "Obamagate" narrative crafted by Trump and his allies, calling it a "diversion" and instead hitting Trump on his fumbled US response to coronavirus, and issues like health care and tax cuts. But Biden was asked about it directly in two television interviews last week. But Biden's answers -- and even the questions themselves -- provided more confusion than clarity. On ABC's "Good Morning America," host George Stephanopoulos asked a long-winded question about the Flynn saga. He invoked the Justice Department's recent decision to dismiss the case, and then asked, "What did you know about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn?" "I know nothing about those moves to investigate Michael Flynn," Biden replied. Moments later, Biden said he misunderstood the earlier question, explaining, "I thought you asked me whether or not I had anything to do with him being prosecuted." In this context, his denial makes sense, because the "prosecution" of Flynn didn't happen until December 2017.  That wasn't the only misstatement during the interview. In a follow-up question, Stephanopoulos inaccurately said that Biden was told at a January 2017 meeting in the Oval Office that the FBI was planning to question Flynn about his suspicious contacts with the Russian ambassador.  "I was aware that there was, that they had asked for an investigation," Biden responded, apparently referring to the FBI. "But that's all I know about it. I don't think anything else." Biden's explanation fits with the voluminous record: At that Oval Office meeting, then-FBI Director James Comey told Obama and Biden that he was concerned about Flynn's "unusual" communication with the Russian ambassador and that the FBI was looking into it. Obama said the FBI should proceed "by the book," but wondered if his aides should reconsider sharing classified information with Flynn, according to a recently declassified email from Obama's national security adviser Susan Rice. There's nothing in the public record indicating that Biden knew about the FBI's plan to question Flynn. The decision was made after Biden left office and the FBI didn't even inform the Justice Department until the agents were on their way, according to testimony from the key players. Despite Trump's claims, there's no proof Obama or Biden knew beforehand that Flynn would be questioned by the FBI. This is a key point, because Trump claims that the FBI interview of Flynn was an illegal "set-up," and that Obama and Biden were responsible for laying what Trump and his allies have called a "perjury trap."  The Biden campaign declined to comment for this story. They declined to answer specific questions about the White House meeting and Biden's knowledge of the Flynn investigation.  Did Biden later change his story? Two days after the ABC interview, Biden did a virtual town hall on MSNBC, and was asked, "What was your involvement in the investigation of Michael Flynn and the FBI investigation?" Biden responded with an adamant denial. "I was never a part or had any knowledge of any criminal investigation into Flynn while I was in office, period," he said. "Not one single time." Trump's allies pounced and claimed that Biden was caught in a lie. First, he told ABC that he knew about an investigation -- but then he told MSNBC that he didn't know. What gives? A close reading of Biden's comments suggests that he has some wiggle room to argue that he has been consistent. In the first comment, he said he knew "they," presumably the FBI, were looking into Flynn. At that point, there was a counterintelligence investigation to figure out Flynn's ties to Russia. In the second comment, Biden said he didn't know about any "criminal" investigation. It still isn't clear when the Flynn counterintelligence investigation transformed into a criminal investigation. The Justice Department seized upon this fuzziness in arguing recently that Flynn should have never been interviewed by the FBI in the first place, and his case should be tossed. The Biden campaign declined multiple requests to clear up the timeline of what Biden knew. Biden didn't get his point across in a clear and consistent fashion. And for someone trying to rebut a conspiracy theory, he inadvertently ended up giving more legs to the allegations. But his explanation makes sense when stacked up against the public record. And Trump, who is accusing Biden of gross abuses of power, has a well-established pattern of making false claims, and was himself impeached for abusing his presidential powers.What has Trump claimed about Biden? Biden hasn't factored much into the conversation about the Russia investigation that has been going on since 2017 -- his name doesn't even appear in Mueller's report. But this spring, Trump and his allies at right-wing news outlets, have tried to connect Biden to the Russia investigation. "I think Obama and Biden knew about it," Trump said Monday of the supposed plot to sabotage his presidency. "They were participants, so I'm a little surprised by those statements." Last week, Trump said, "President Obama and Vice President Biden, they knew everything." This conspiracy theory was quickly picked up in right-wing media, most prominently on Fox News, where "Obamagate" was mentioned more than "coronavirus" for two days last week. What about unmasking? Trump also focused on another element of the controversy -- something called "unmasking." Information about Americans is anonymized in US intelligence reports for privacy reasons. But there are instances when US officials who read these reports need to see the full picture. To make that happen, they need to provide a justification to the agency that produced the report. If the agency grants that request, the information is "unmasked." This is a very routine practice -- it is done by officials authorized to view these details and requests have ramped up in the Trump administration. The Trump administration declassified new documents this month naming the Obama-era officials who requested the unmasking of an individual who ended up being Flynn. The Trump administration did not release the justifications that were given for the unmasking requests, and the documents on their own don't indicate any abuses or wrongdoing -- despite Trump's claims. The records indicate that Biden or a staffer requested an unmasking on January 12, 2017.Biden has not commented publicly about this, and his campaign declined explain to CNN why he made the requests or what justification was provided to the National Security Agency.  But the Trump-appointed NSA director said these requests were vetted before being approved.The Biden campaign did release a blistering statement about unmasking last week, from spokesman Andrew Bates, who said Trump was trying to "distract" from coverage of his coronavirus response, and accused Republicans of "abusing" and politicizing US intelligence. "Importantly, none of these individuals could have known Flynn's identity beforehand," Bates said. "These documents have absolutely nothing to do with any FBI investigation and they confirm that all normal procedures were followed -- any suggestion otherwise is a flat out lie."Despite the evidence that proper protocol was indeed followed, the Biden campaign's limited rebuttals on this issue have been met with aggressive commentary from Trump, who said last week that Biden "was one of the unmaskers, meaning he knew everything about it.What happens next? There are no indications that Trump will back down his conspiracy-filled allegations against Biden. If anything, Trump's campaign has signaled that it wants to keep this issue in the news. With Biden unclear in his public comments, and his campaign unwilling to publicly provide a clear timeline of the facts as they see them, it will be easy for Trump to continue dominating the conversation. He has the largest megaphone in the world, and he's more than happy to use it.  Video by Victoria Fleischer

Other articles published by CNN

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said she censors herself when speaking publicly about President Donald Trump in order to ensure continued federal assistance to her state amid the coronavirus pandemic. Asked specifically by Axios reporter Alexi...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst. She is a senior adviser at the University of Delaware's Biden Institute, which is not affiliated with the Biden campaign. Vinograd served on President Barack Obama's National Security Council from...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)The 20-year-old man accused of beating a 75-year-old in a Detroit nursing home pleaded not guilty to assault Sunday, said Maria Miller, Wayne County assistant prosecuting attorney.Jaden T. Hayden of Ypsilanti was charged with two counts of assault...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

Dean Obeidallah, a former attorney, is the host of SiriusXM radio's daily program "The Dean Obeidallah Show" and a columnist for The Daily Beast. Follow him @DeanObeidallah. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)Tom Brady welcomed Eli Manning to the Twitterverse this weekend by engaging him in a classic social media roast.Manning, a former New York Giants quarterback, got burned by Brady, a fellow star quarterback, after posting his first tweet on...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)On Friday morning, Joe Biden said something dumb -- and offensive."Well I tell you what, if you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black," Biden told Charlemagne tha God in a radio interview for "The Breakfast ...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

Jeffrey D. Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN. (CNN)On this somber Memorial Day weekend, ...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Sunday that the state will take steps toward reopening this week even as the battle against the coronavirus continues.Though daily deaths in the state went above 100 again on Saturday, the overall numbers in the...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

We are publishing personal essays from CNN's global staff as they live and cover the story of Covid-19. Chris Cillizza is a CNN Politics reporter and Editor-at-Large in Washington, DC. (CNN)When our country  -- and the world  --  started to shut...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

Washington (CNN)Ohio Republican Gov. Mike DeWine on Sunday said wearing a mask "is not about politics," as the country reopens and the number of coronavirus deaths nears 100,000 in the US."This is not about politics, this is not about whether you're...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)Former Florida US Rep. Allen West is in the hospital after he was injured in a motorcycle accident on Saturday, according to a series of posts on his verified social media accounts. West is in stable condition, a post on his Facebook page said...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)The Class of 2020 is graduating at a strange time, with ceremonies canceled across the country and many going virtual.But at one Chick-fil-A in San Antonio, Texas, store employees got creative to celebrate their school graduates.In an outdoor...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

Several sex workers interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity due to fear of legal repercussion and social stigma. (CNN)Don't kiss. Tell clients to wash their hands before they touch you. Wear a mask. Avoid face-to-face...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

(CNN)There's a new reality show from the Kardashian/Jenner family, but it has a twist. The series, titled "Kirby Jenner," premieres Monday on Quibi. The show centers around a 24-year-old performance artist who has risen to fame over the past five years...

Posted Sunday, 24 May 2020 ‐ CNN

New York (CNN)With travelers staying close to home and airports turned into virtual ghost towns, rental car companies have taken a huge hit during the coronavirus pandemic. On Friday Hertz, which also operates the Dollar and Thrifty agencies, declared...