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Trump brands Russia probe ‘witch hunt’ as ex-aide seeks immunity

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US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with US manufacturers in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, March 31, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB

President Donald Trump Friday defended a decision by his former top aide Michael Flynn to ask for immunity in a probe into the Trump team’s ties to Russia, blasting the case as an opposition “witch hunt.”

Trump’s ex-national security advisor, whose links to Russia are one focus of the sprawling investigation, has sought protection in exchange for his testimony to the FBI and congressional committees, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Flynn’s lawyer said in a statement Thursday that his client has “a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should the circumstances permit,” without directly confirming the offer to testify for immunity.

The development suggested the retired lieutenant general has more to reveal about the Russia affair. Flynn could be a key witness as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Congress seek to determine whether Trump advisors colluded with Russia’s interference in last year’s presidential election.

Appearing to lay down a challenge, Trump encouraged Flynn’s move.

“Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!”

– Legal tactic? –
A close advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, Flynn was forced to step down as White House national security advisor in February after misleading the vice president about conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak after the election.

He is also in focus over receiving $33,000 from Russian television RT to attend a 2015 gala in Moscow where he sat with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and $530,000 from Turkey for lobbying services.

But Flynn is not the only member of Trump’s advisors to have had contacts with Russia during the campaign. Investigators want to know whether there was any collusion between them and Moscow’s concerted effort last year to hurt Trump’s Democratic election rival Hillary Clinton.

What Flynn could tell investigators is unknown. US prosecutors can offer a suspect immunity in exchange for information that can incriminate others in a case, particularly larger figures.

Asking for immunity, said criminal lawyer Mark Bennett on Twitter, is “a reasonable stance for someone to take even if she hasn’t done anything wrong — especially where… the grand jury’s investigation appears to have political overtones.”

Alex Whiting, a Harvard Law School professor writing on the Just Security website, said Flynn’s offer to testify in exchange for immunity was “not a serious offer,” suggesting it was rather a tactical move.

A real offer to the FBI would never have gone public in this way, he noted, given that it would have to involve Flynn negotiating to provide very serious evidence against powerful figures including possibly the president.

“The fact that Flynn and his lawyer have made his offer publicly suggests that he has nothing good to give the prosecutors.”

Instead, he said, it was more likely an effort by Flynn to protect himself from Justice Department prosecution, by first obtaining immunity from one of the bodies in Congress probing the Russia affair. One of the Republican-dominated committees involved in the probe could conceivably do that, to protect Flynn and the White House.

But initial signals are that Flynn will face tough resistance to any such move.

Early Friday NBC News television quoted an official saying that the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is asking Flynn to testify, was not initially “receptive” to his request.

NBC reported that Flynn’s lawyer was told immunity was “not on the table” at the moment.

Officials at the House Intelligence Committee said nothing has been discussed with regard to possible immunity.

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