Late Monday night, Michael Flynn became the first major Trump appointee to bite the dust. Officially, the president asked for Flynn’s resignation due to waning trust in the national security adviser: While Trump had no problem with Flynn chatting about sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States (on the very day that president Obama ordered new sanctions against Putin’s regime), Trump did object to Flynn withholding that information from Vice-President Mike Pence.
But is that really what got Flynn canned? After all, Trump (officially) knew about Flynn’s dissembling 17 days before he sent the man packing. And the White House has suggested that “other questionable incidents” factored into the president’s decision. What were these “incidents?” And would they have mattered absent press scrutiny?
These aren’t idle questions. Discerning precisely what one has to do to be kicked out of the Trump White House (a place where a history of mendacity, corruption and/or conspiratorial theorizing is not necessarily disqualifying) would not only shed light on the administration’s internal power struggles but also offer insight into another pressing question — who will be the next to hear the president’s favorite catchphrase?
And so, five members of New York Magazine’s politics team — Jonathan Chait, Ed Kilgore, Olivia Nuzzi, Eric Levitz, and Margaret Hartmann — joined NYMag.com deputy editor Jebediah Reed Tuesday to try and discern just that.
Jebediah Reed: Flynn is out after 24 days — the quickest firing of a cabinet-level official in American presidential history. There are a number of narratives circulating about what happened: It was a deep State hit. Or this was something Trump and Bannon wanted anyway. Or this was the White House caving to media pressure. What story of Flynn’s firing do you think is most convincing?
Ed Kilgore: Flynn got caught lying to the 46th president of the United States.
Jonathan Chait: I think media pressure has a clear effect on Trump, though whether it was decisive in this case is hard to know.
Olivia Nuzzi: If you look at what the White House was saying last night and into this morning, amid the confusion of the news breaking, it was quite different than what Spicer was saying today during the briefing. A senior official told The New Yorker they couldn’t withstand the “drip, drip” of information. And if you couple that with the fact that Trump knew about the questions surrounding Flynn for weeks, I think it confirms this was about a bad news cycle putting pressure on Trump and others more than it was about dishonesty — if it even ever was about dishonesty. We still have so many questions unanswered.
Margaret Hartmann: I’d like to think that the independent press still has some power to hold the Trump administration to account — even if its very sporadic so far.
Nuzzi: I think this episode is sort of confirmation of that, Margaret. That journalism actually does matter to this administration. Although I wonder if it’s for a superficial reason — is it just that President Trump is upset the spotlight has been diverted onto someone else?
Eric Levitz: Flynn had ambitions to reform and restructure the intelligence agencies in ways that many powerful people within them are not interested in.
He seems to be a sloppy administrator, who failed to ensure that [CIA Director Mike] Pompeo saw Trump’s executive orders before they were signed.
A very high percentage of the people who have worked with Michael Flynn do not like him. And he has reportedly been possessive of his access to Trump and resentful of those crowding in on his territory.
I think he may have survived the news cycle absent these liabilities. But a bad, ongoing story + many people within the administration who wanted him gone = resignation.
Kilgore: There’s a fine line between havoc — which I think Trump, Bannon, and Miller savor — and chaos, and maybe somebody had to take the fall for the latter.
Chait: Let me add in a smart point on this from our colleague, via Twitter:
Hartmann: Yes! The news about the 3 a.m. phone call came out just one day before the Russia news cycle started.
Nuzzi: I could absolutely see Trump interpreting that leak as an ultimate act of disloyalty from Flynn. That said, I haven’t heard anything from my sources about that being a consideration.
Chait: I’m guessing Flynn told others, who told the media.
Nuzzi: Yeah, Jon, I agree.
Levitz: Per the Times, the administration is considering surveilling itself to crack down on the leaks: “… Mr. Trump’s top advisers are considering an ‘insider threat’ program that could result in monitoring cellphones and emails for leaks.”
Reed: By firing Flynn, has Trump stopped the bleeding for now on questions about Russian influence inside his administration? Or did this make the problem worse?
Nuzzi: I think if an investigation is opened up on Flynn, this only worsens the Russia problem for the administration, because we’ll be talking about it every day.
Hartmann: I agree. Raises the question of whether Flynn brought up sanctions on his own or was directed to do so by Trump, or other top advisers.
Chait: CNN’s report, that elements of the famous dossier have been confirmed, came and went very quickly (like many huge stories have under Trump), but it’s pretty significant.
Hartmann: And further legitimizes the idea that Russia is worth examining. It had a concrete effect beyond intel agencies announcing they’re looking into it.
Levitz: If I understood [White House press secretary Sean] Spicer correctly, the Trump White House’s official line is that it was totally appropriate for Flynn to talk about the sanctions with his Russian counterpart. The only problem is that he wasn’t forthright with [Vice-President Mike] Pence about it
Nuzzi: That’s their official line at this moment. I wonder if it will change again.
Reed: Which brings us to our headline question: Who gets shitcanned next in the Trump White House?
Kilgore: Well, Breitbart’s using Flynn’s departure as a lever to demand [White House chief-of-staff Reince] Priebus be dismissed for causing all the chaos.
Nuzzi: Weird, considering [chief strategist Steve] Bannon and Priebus actually love each other.
Hartmann: Sean Spicer is easier to get rid of — or rather, just shift him into the role of communications director. Since it’s insane he’s supposed to be doing both jobs anyway.
Nuzzi: I agree that Spicer seems likeliest.
Levitz: I actually thought Spicer was kind of impressive today. I don’t think he’s done well previously, but considering the degree of difficulty — I thought he spun his heart out.
Hartmann: Can you really come back from the disgrace of being portrayed by a woman on SNL?
Chait: Priebus will be next. Trump mocked him months ago. He also does not look like a chief-of-staff (a key Trump requirement.) He was clearly forced on Trump. And he’s the person putatively in charge of organizing an administration for which organization is the central problem.
Kilgore: I find the Breitbart argument that Priebus is responsible for the whole outside world not cooperating with The Boss a good leading indicator.
Hartmann: I actually think this helps Priebus. Two high-profile firings close together creates a bad image. I think this has extended his tenure by at least a few months.
Nuzzi: I think it’s generally smart to assume that the real power in the White House lies with those who are not on television spinning for the president. The people out there performing on his behalf are also constantly being assessed by Trump in a way that I imagine Bannon, Priebus, [Stephen] Miller, and obviously [Jared] Kushner, aren’t. So I think Spicer and Kellyanne [Conway] are inherently more vulnerable. Also I would add that Kellyanne apparently “accidentally” RT’d a white nationalist today.
Levitz: Happens to the best of us (or, of them, anyway).
Hartmann: Hasn’t the president done that too though?
Nuzzi: Who among us.
Levitz: I think Spicer gets moved behind the curtain, before Kellyanne gets axed.
Nuzzi: I agree with that. Also Kellyanne has the benefit of having helped shepherd Trump to victory in a way that Spicer can’t really take credit for.
Levitz: Yeah. Spicer’s hiring was just a favor to Reince, from what I understand.
Kilgore: Priebus is getting blamed for Congress, the bureaucracy, the whole world not adjusting to what Trump wants.
Nuzzi: I assume Priebus is being blamed for a lot of things that are probably not his fault, or not entirely his fault. From what I understand from my sources, Trump himself is ungovernable. So Priebus is in this impossible position of trying to create order in a place, with a leader, that much prefers chaos.
Hartmann: We’re talking about a guy who went through three campaign managers.
Chait: Right. He’s the putative chief-of-staff in an administration that doesn’t really have a chief- of-staff (a role that implies a certain structure).
Levitz: Any chief-of-staff who isn’t prepared to confiscate Trump’s Android, delete his Twitter account, and crush sedatives into his food will fail to produce order.
Nuzzi: We’re all trying to figure out who’s pulling the strings or whatever, but if there’s something we know for sure about Trump it is that he likes to talk to and survey as many people as possible. Remember, he asked his Mar-a-Lago guests, over Thanksgiving, who he should pick for secretary of State. When he called Flynn at 3 a.m. to talk about monetary policy, that was also a form of this. He likes to bat ideas around with lots of people, and then he decides on his own opinion.
Reed: Last question: going back to the joke that Ed made to start this — Pence as the 46th POTUS — does anyone buy the now-rampant speculation that Pence’s long game here is enabling a Trump impeachment?
Nuzzi: I don’t know that I believe anyone in the White House has a long game.
Kilgore: I do not agree that Pence is planning on impeachment. Maybe Trump gets tired/bored after one term.
Hartmann: Yeah, I think anyone looking at the chaos of the Trump administration and trying to impose a plan is very foolish. Pence would have to literally be Littlefinger.
Chait: Boy, that would be a tough gig. If Trump is an embittered, impeached, and removed former president, then the party is split, in which case, how would Pence govern?
Kilgore: I will point out Gerald Ford damn near got reelected in 1976.
Chait: Ford did not get Nixon impeached, though.
Hartmann: I think Pence certainly has his eye on the presidency, but taking over after Trump’s impeahment probably isn’t how he wants to do it.
Nuzzi: All of my predictions about Trump have been wrong for 20 months. But having said that, I think it’s unlikely he quits or is impeached his first term.
Kilgore: You are more honest than most of us, Olivia.
Chait: Trump does seem physically and mentally unequal to the job, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he can’t make it all the way through.
Levitz: It seems like Trump probably doesn’t really like this job, and that (almost) everyone around him knows he really is not up to doing it. But I think it’s more likely that Trump slowly forfeits most of the non-figurehead portions of the job than formally leaves it.