A federal judge accused President Donald Trump's former national security chief Michael Flynn Tuesday of selling out the United States but agreed to delay his sentencing for lying over secret communications with Russian officials.
Judge Emmet Sullivan said Flynn had behaved in a "traitorous" manner while he was in the White House in early 2017 and threatened to impose a stiff prison sentence, rejecting a recommendation by prosecutors that the retired three-star general benefit from cooperating and receive no jail time.
But the judge gave Flynn the option to delay his sentencing, to better demonstrate why he merited a light punishment.
"I want to be frank with you, this crime is very serious," Sullivan said. "I'm not hiding my disgust, my disdain."
"Arguably, you sold your country out," he added.
- Surprise rebuke -
It was a sharp and unexpected rebuke to the highest-ranked Trump aide so far to face a judge in the Russian collusion investigation of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Flynn, a lanky 60-year-old former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, showed no emotion as he answered the judge's questions as briefly as possible.
Trump has maintained that Flynn has fallen prey to a "witch hunt" by the FBI and allied Democrats to undermine his administration.
"The whole Russian Collusion thing was a HOAX, but who is going to restore the good name of so many people whose reputations have been destroyed?" Trump tweeted earlier Tuesday.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said following Tuesday's hearing that Flynn had been mistreated.
"The FBI broke standard protocol in the way they came in and ambushed General Flynn and in the way they questioned him," she said.
Flynn has been a central focus of the Mueller probe.
Two FBI agents arrived at the White house on January 24, 2017 -- four days after Trump was inaugurated -- to interview Flynn about his conversations the previous month with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
The agents said Flynn lied about those contacts, in which he allegedly promised to remove sanctions on Russia even while the Obama government was in the process of strengthening them over Moscow's interference in the 2016 election.
Weeks later Flynn left the White House under a cloud for the alleged lies, but Trump persisted in defending him.
In private meetings he pressured then-FBI director James Comey to pull back the investigation into Flynn's Russia contacts, Comey has testified.
After Comey refused, Trump fired him, an act which led to Mueller's appointment as an independent prosecutor in charge of the Russia probe.
An additional consequence of Comey's firing was that Trump himself came under investigation for attempted obstruction of justice.
- Turning point in Russia probe? -
Flynn was one of the first to seek a deal with Mueller, admitting one count of lying a year ago but putting off his sentencing while he cooperated in the broader Mueller probe.
So far at least 38 people have been indicted in cases brought by Mueller or spun off from his investigation.
Flynn's case reaching the sentencing stage could mark a turning point for the investigation: all the cases filed against non-Russians have been resolved with guilty pleas and, in one case, a jury conviction.
Mueller is believed now poised to take the probe to a new level where people in Trump's inner circle, including possibly the president himself, are implicated in wrongdoing, from collusion with Russians during the election to financial crimes.
Little is known about the exact targets of the highly secret special council operation, but Trump's repeated attacks trying to delegitimize the operation suggest he is worried.
- Trump foundation shut down -
Trump was forced on Tuesday to shut down his personal charity, the Trump Foundation, after the New York attorney general accused it of a "shocking pattern of illegality" to advance the president's political and business interests.
The state sued the foundation in June, accusing it of "persistently illegal conduct," naming the president, his sons Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump, and daughter Ivanka Trump, who were on the board.
The foundation had functioned "as little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump's business and political interests," state Attorney General Barbara Underwood said.
"This is an important victory for the rule of law, making clear that there is one set of rules for everyone," Underwood added.