SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Members of Congress sure want to hear from retired General Michael Flynn. He's President Trump's former national security adviser and he says he'll talk but with a catch. Mr. Flynn wants immunity from prosecution before he agrees to testify in any investigation of Russian meddling in the presidential race. Right now, there is no sign that investigators will agree. We're joined now by NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.
SIMON: Does General Flynn's lawyer want immunity for his client because he's afraid he'll be prosecuted for something?
JOHNSON: Well, that's certainly an open question. Remember that after he left the White House, was fired from the White House this year, Scott, General Flynn actually filed some forms with the Justice Department registering he was acting as a foreign agent for a company close to the Turkish president. That should have been done last year when the work was performed, not this year after it was already public. There are also some open questions about whether Flynn told the truth in his background check. So we don't know the extent of any culpability he may have but certainly a smart legal strategy for his attorney to try to lean in and get his client some immunity.
SIMON: The Senate, as we speak, has indicated they're not open to immunity. Still, is that just a negotiating position? Is there a chance that one of the committees will agree to an immunity deal?
JOHNSON: There is a chance, Scott, but it's really early in the investigation. It's not clear what Mike Flynn has in his back pocket to advance any of the investigations, either in Congress or at the Justice Department. Usually before any kind of deal is struck, authorities want a proffer. That's a sense of what a witness has to say, how helpful or explosive it may be. That makes sense because Congress does not want to get in the way of a possible criminal case being built by the Justice Department. There's a long history here.
SIMON: By that, you're referring to the Iran-Contra scandal in the late '80s.
JOHNSON: Exactly. Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North was a key witness in that arms for hostage scandal during the Reagan years back in 1987. Congress actually granted Oliver North immunity in exchange for his testimony. Here's congressional investigator John Nields back then questioning North about a key issue - whether he got rid of any documents tying President Reagan to the scandal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN NIELDS: Did you or did you not shred documents that reflected presidential approval of the diversion?
OLIVER NORTH: I have absolutely no recollection of destroying any document which gave me an indication that the president had seen the document or that the president had specifically approved.
JOHNSON: Scott, after this, North was ultimately convicted by a jury of three felony crimes, including shredding some documents, but a federal appeals court here in Washington made a very important ruling. The court ruled that the congressional grant of immunity and North's high-profile testimony that was televised tainted the entire criminal case against him, hurt his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Since then, longtime Washington lawyer Steve Ryan told me Congress has been very reluctant to get in the way of the Justice Department. Ryan points out DOJ gets about 30 days to object to any congressional immunity deal before it takes effect for that very reason.
SIMON: I'm sure there's enough irony to go around, but it should be noted both President Trump and General Flynn have made some pointed comments about immunity in the recent past.
JOHNSON: Yeah, absolutely. During the campaign, Donald Trump pointed out five people connected to Hillary Clinton's email server had gotten immunity deals from the Justice Department, essentially saying they were operating under a legal and ethical cloud. And last September, Michael Flynn appeared on the NBC show "Meet The Press." Flynn had this to say about immunity.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")
MICHAEL FLYNN: When you are given immunity, that means that you probably committed a crime.
JOHNSON: Flynn, for his part, denies wrongdoing. His lawyer, Rob Kelner, says, no reasonable person with a lawyer would ever submit to questioning in such a highly politicized witch hunt environment without immunity. So things are sort of in a status quo or a limbo now.
SIMON: There are two congressional committees as we speak, the Justice Department, the FBI, all trying to get to the bottom of any Russian connections with the 2016 election. What's over the horizon? What's next?
JOHNSON: These investigations are at very early stages. Dozens of witnesses are still on tap to testify. FBI Director James Comey suggested the investigation still had a long ways to go. They're operating in kind of a black box now, Scott, but there are certainly a lot of questions about Mike Flynn, other people close to the Trump campaign, who had dealings with Russia last year.
SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much for being with us.
JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.