Trump faces Watergate-era question: What did he know, when did he know it?

What did the president know and when did he know it?

What did the president know and when did he know it?

Court filings say that a “senior” official in Trump’s post-election transition team told him to contact officials from other governments, including Russia, meaning that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office will be looking at high-level aides and perhaps the president himself.

“Far too many questions still remain unanswered about the Trump Russia scandal, such as who was involved with instructing Flynn to speak with the Russians directly, about what, and why,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs committee.

Engel said “it seems that more evidence is uncovered every day” about contacts between the Trump team and Russia as the latter sought to intervene in the 2016 presidential election. White House officials — including the president himself — said there was no collusion between Trump’s team and the Russians, and that Flynn has nothing to tell that would the president in any kind of legal jeopardy. 

“What has been shown is no collusion, no collusion,” Trump told reporters as he left the White House on Saturday for fundraising events in New York City. “There’s been absolutely no collusion, so we’re very happy.”

He added, “We’ll see what happens.”

Trump later took to Twitter to reiterate there was no collusion with Russia, and said he is unconcerned about anything Flynn might say.

“I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies,” Trump tweeted. “It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!”

I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!

Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak mirror the lies for which Trump dismissed Flynn as national security adviser, said White House attorney Ty Cobb.

“Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn,” Cobb said in a statement, adding that the special counsel’s office “is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion” to the Russia investigation.

While Mueller’s office has been virtually leak-proof, outside legal analysts said the tea leaves indicate that Trump and his senior aides have plenty to worry about.

While Mueller’s office investigated Flynn on a variety of issues, including unreported lobbying work on behalf of Turkish interests, it allowed him to plead guilty to the relatively minor charge of lying to the FBI.

“It seems undeniable that Mueller is getting something big in exchange for going so soft on him,” said Stephen Vladeck, a professor at the University of Texas Law School. “The million-dollar question is what – or who –  that is.”

Mueller is the only person who knows for sure what Flynn knows, he added — “but if I’m the president or one of his advisers, this just got a lot more serious.”

Not so fast, said Trump supporters.

Flynn’s plea to a relatively minor charge could mean his cooperation is minor as well, they said, and Trump enemies who see the Russia case as another Watergate may wind up disappointed.

While four former Trump aides have faced legal charges — including former campaign officials Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos _ none of those charges touch on a key issue: Collusion with Russia as it sought to influence the election via hacking Democratic emails and pushing fake news about Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

“I suspect there is a lot less to the Flynn plea than meets the eye,” said Ari Fleischer, former press secretary to President George W. Bush.

Court documents said that Flynn spoke to Kislyak about a then-pending United Nations Security Council meeting on whether to condemn Israel’s building of settlements. The Obama administration was preparing to allow a Security Council vote on the matter, but Trump sought to block it (Trump was unsuccessful; the Security Council passed the resolution).

Flynn is also accused of telling Kislyak that Russia should not overreact to sanctions the Obama administration slapped on it because of the election hacking.

These contacts with Kislyak may have been ill-advised, supporters said, but were not in and of themselves illegal.

“If Trump directed Flynn, the only issue that matters is what were the directions,” Fleischer said. “If it involved collusion to hack, then Trump is in big trouble. If it was to discuss sanctions, that’s certainly not a crime.”

People in the White House and beyond are waiting to see the next steps from Mueller, and what Flynn tells him that might direct those next steps.

Patrick Cotter, a former assistant U.S. attorney and now a white-collar defense attorney with the Chicago-based firm of Greensfelder, Hemker & Gale, said Flynn’s plea is “an ominous development” for members of the Trump organization.

For one thing, Flynn’s cooperation could shed light on another aspect of the Mueller investigation, the claim that Trump may have obstructed justice by firing then-FBI Director James Comey in May. Afterward, Comey said that Trump had asked him to drop the investigation into Flynn.

Mueller’s team also figures to zero in on other aides close to Trump. A variety of news reports say that the the transition official who told Flynn to contact other governments was Jared Kushner, a White House adviser and the president’s son-in-law.

“The fact that Flynn is cooperating about those contacts sends a chilling message to others in the organization he dealt with, who, in turn, must now seriously consider trying to limit the damage to themselves by cooperating as well,” Cotter said.