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What Flynn's guilty plea means for Trump and the GOP

Trump's legal team is playing down the Flynn conviction as a contained fire but the political fallout could impede Trump's agenda and further divide the GOP.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks about taxes at the St. Charles, Missouri, Convention Center on November 29, 2017.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

WASHINGTON — It's going to get harder for President Donald Trump to distance himself politically from special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe after Michael Flynn's guilty plea — and that could be bad news for his fellow Republicans at the polls.

Flynn, Trump's former national security adviser, pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI, and the White House is worried about any information he could pass along to prosecutors.

For now, the president's legal team is playing down the conviction as a contained fire — one that will burn only Flynn for his deceit — but the political fallout could impede Trump's agenda next year and further divide a Republican Party that has been riven by a high-stakes electoral civil war.

Even in the best of times, Trump has struggled to unify a fractious White House team, GOP lawmakers on the Hill, the Republican Party and the nation. That's hurt him in Congress, where a tax-cut bill is his last best gasp for a single major legislative accomplishment deep into his first year in the Oval Office.

And the failure so far to have any of the president's key agenda items enacted by the GOP-controlled House and Senate has turned Trump's electoral coalition against establishment Republicans and threatens to damage the party's chances in the 2018 midterms and possibly even Trump's own re-election campaign.

"From a political standpoint, I think this will give (congressional Democrats) ammunition to jab their (committee) chairmen to continue to investigate, to continue to call witnesses and to continue to probe on their own, and I think that's the albatross the senior staff and the president won't be able to get off their necks for months to come," said Ron Christie, who was a special assistant to President George W. Bush.

Katie Packer Beeson, the deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential bid and an MSNBC contributor, said Republicans had reason to separate themselves from Trump even before the news of Flynn's conviction.

The Flynn plea and whatever comes next won't make Trump any more attractive in competitive districts and Senate races.

"For 2018, I think it would be foolish for any candidate to campaign with the president in a general election," she said. "Flynn or no Flynn, every special election this year has seen Republicans with Trump ties underperforming badly."

It's difficult to predict now exactly what the Flynn plea deal and Mueller probe will mean for Trump politically, said Republican strategist Doug Heye.

"It's obviously not good news," he said, but added, "We'll need to know a lot more about how high this goes, what substance is there and if, as we've seen in the past, anything matters."

While political analysts say it's too early in the investigation and the political calendar to make predictions about how the Flynn conviction might affect Trump's chances in 2020 should he run for a second term, the specter of an intensifying probe could prevent Republicans in Congress from energizing their base — and, among the opposition, add more fuel to the fire that Trump's presidency has lit under grass-roots Democrats.

"Very few people are going to change their mind about Donald Trump based on Flynn, at least not until we find out what Flynn told Mueller," said Dan Schnur, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. "In the meantime, this is less likely to change anyone's opinion on either side, but rather to intensify those opinions."

Matt Schlapp, a Trump ally who served as political director in Bush's White House, said such crises are "stressful and difficult to deal with" for any administration.

But, Schlapp added, the single charge Flynn pleaded to suggests that there isn't much more there, and that could mitigate any political fallout for Trump. "There's no indication," he continued, that the actions that Flynn lied about were, in and of themselves, against the law.

But Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat who is the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Friday that the Flynn plea robs Trump of the ability to frame the investigation as focused on bit players.

"You can't deny the seriousness when the national security adviser to the president of the United States is pleading guilty to lying," Warner told NBC News.