National security advisor Michael Flynn’s rough week didn’t get any better over the weekend. Following the news that the former general reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, then apparently misled his transition-team colleagues about it, the White House is giving the issue the silent treatment, unnamed National Security Council staffers are leaking up a storm, Democratic lawmakers are asking for Flynn’s security clearance to be revoked, and tensions between him and the intelligence community appear to be worsening. On Sunday night, the Wall Street Journal additionally reported that a White House review, led by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, is quietly underway on the question of whether or not to retain Flynn.
On Thursday, the Washington Post and others reported that several U.S. officials with access to intercepted communications between Flynn and Kislyak had confirmed that Flynn had discussed the new election-related sanctions in December, possibly breaking the law. In that conversation, Flynn allegedly urged Russia to temper their response to the new sanctions, which were implemented by President Obama over Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election. He also may have signaled that the Trump administration would amend the sanctions after they came into power, though there is no reported evidence that he explicitly promised as much, and if he did, it remains unclear if he did so independently. The investigation is ongoing, but here’s how War in Context’s Paul Woodward unpacks the former concern:
If Flynn had made an explicit promise there would be no need to analyze his intentions — the recorded contents of the conversations would convey all we need to know. Moreover, unless he suffers from some kind of speech impediment, there’s no reason to imagine that he could have the intention to make an explicit promise short of actually making such a promise.
Instead, what is key here is whether Flynn’s statements, based on their content and timing, would be interpreted by the Russian ambassador as an implicit promise. In other words, was Flynn telegraphing a nod and a wink from Trump to Putin that Russia had no reason to be concerned about Obama’s last-minute sanctions.
Flynn and White House officials repeatedly denied that he and Kislyak discussed sanctions during the call. (At one point, an official even insisted that Flynn had just been calling Kislyak to wish him a Merry Christmas, amidst other explanations.) Those denials started to unravel on Thursday, however, when Flynn, through his spokesperson, revised his stance, saying he “had no recollection of discussing sanctions,” but “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
Another denial regarding the sanctions discussion had come from Vice-President Pence during a television interview in mid-January, but the story out of the White House is that Pence’s denial was based on what Flynn had told him, indicating that Flynn likely misled the vice-president.
On Saturday, an unnamed White House official told the Associated Press that Flynn still had Trump’s “full confidence” in light of the report, but on Sunday, White House senior policy advisor Stephen Miller dodged questions as to how Trump and other top White House officials were feeling about Flynn’s actions. When Meet the Press host Chuck Todd asked Miller if Trump still has confidence in Flynn, Miller passed the buck. “That’s the question that I think you should ask the president, the question you should ask [Chief of Staff Reince Priebus,]” Miller replied. He added that the White House “did not give me anything to say” on the “sensitive matter.” Miller made similar non-illuminating remarks on ABC’s This Week. All told, it was obviously not a robust defense of Flynn by the White House.
Also on Sunday, a New York Times report came out detailing the drama around Flynn and the extraordinary dysfunction within the National Security Council, according to dozens of current and former council staff members who requested anonymity. The dispirited staffers paint a picture of Flynn as an out-of-his-depth manager who is overly reliant on military-style thinking and insecure over whether or not his campaign-level open access to Trump is waning. Flynn is also apparently (and understandably) worried about the influence of a shadow council started by Steve Bannon, Trump’s world-disruption-loving chief strategist.
In one example from the report, the leakers explain that Flynn apparently did not realize that the White House needed Congress and the State Department to carry out the transfer of weapons and technology to allies like Saudi Arabia. In another, they note that Flynn was partially responsible for some of the confusion among top administration officials regarding Trump’s executive orders. Flynn’s trusted deputy, K.T. McFarland, who at one point apparently told Council members that it was now their job to “make America great again,” does not come across as particularly competent either.
On Friday at The Atlantic, David Graham wondered if Flynn would become the Trump administration’s first sacrificial lamb:
Since the national security adviser position is not subject to Senate confirmation, Flynn avoided the same gauntlet that other top Trump aides have faced, but his spell in the White House has already been rocky. His son, also Michael Flynn, was pushed out of the Trump transition team after spreading bizarre conspiracy theories. Flynn père reportedly clashed with Secretary of Defense James Mattis, another former general, over staffing at the Pentagon. When senior Trump aide Steve Bannon was added to the National Security Council — a move that drew a sharp backlash, given Bannon’s lack of national-security expertise — some reports said the move was mostly intended to backstop Flynn’s poor management of the council. David Ignatius reported earlier this week that 60 positions on Flynn’s staff are still open, a fact “that may reflect wariness at the State Department and CIA, where many career officials are reluctant to work for Trump.”
Given the widespread reservations about Flynn, his reversal — and the fact that he allowed Pence to make a false denial on national television — might present a good opportunity to push him out and move on.
Doing so would also remove what is quickly becoming a major target for politicians across the aisle, as the criticism and calls for Flynn’s head from Democratic lawmakers continue to intensify. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi declared on Saturday that “General Flynn should be suspended and have his intelligence clearance revoked until the facts are known about his secret contacts with the Russians.” Pelosi also wants the FBI to deepen its ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to the Russian regime and called for an outside commission to be launched by Congress into the matter. Pelosi’s statement regarding Flynn echoes similar calls by top Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee, Foreign Relations Committee, and Oversight Committee. “If this new report is true, we need to ask not only whether General Flynn should be leading our national security efforts, but whether he should even hold a security clearance,” Representative Elijah Cummings, the top Democratic on the Oversight Committee, said in a statement on Friday — and he went even further on Sunday.
There’s also the question of whether or not Flynn broke the law, assuming he did in fact strategize with the Kremlin over how they should respond to Obama’s new sanctions. The Weekly Standard’s Max Boot quashes that notion:
There is now talk that Flynn could be prosecuted under the Logan Act, a 1799 law that forbids unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign powers in a dispute with the U.S. While such a prosecution may well be warranted, it is unlikely to occur, not only because it would have to be initiated by the Trump Justice Department but also because no one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act.
Also on Friday, Politico reported that one of Flynn’s closest allies had been denied elite security clearance by the CIA, effectively firing Flynn’s ally, senior director for Africa Robin Townley, from the National Security Council. Townley will retain his top-secret clearance, but his request for “Sensitive Compartmented Information” was rejected. Politico frames the move, which was approved by Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo, as a sign of escalating tension between Flynn and the intelligence community. Townley, like Flynn, has been a critic of current intelligence methods, and a source told Politico that Flynn and his allies “believe this is a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him.” Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, rejected that assertion, commenting that security clearance is always denied for a reason, and Flynn was probably just being paranoid. Regardless, its still not clear why Townley didn’t make the cut.
Politico’s reporting also suggests that that a growing number of people in the White House are working to get rid of Flynn, and some blame him for Trump’s ill-advised campaign against the intelligence community after intel officials reached the conclusion that Russia had interfered in the election in an effort to help get Trump elected. Flynn had been critical of those conclusions, which he and Trump suggested were politically biased.
Responding to these reports at Hot Air, conservative blogger Allahpundit tries to make sense of all the knives that are now out for Flynn:
Let’s pause now and take stock of just how many people at the highest heights of the U.S. government have reason to be pissed off at Flynn and willing to damage him by chirping to the media. Bannon and Kushner may be wary of him, both for threatening their influence and for antagonizing key cabinet secretaries; Mattis, Tillerson, and Pompeo are supposedly annoyed at him for undercutting them, including on personnel decisions; Pence and his team are understandably angry at him for allegedly misleading Pence about the Kislyak phone call; and various natsec professionals are suspicious of him for his chumminess with Russia and his willingness to undercut Obama by hinting at sanctions relief right around the time sanctions were first being imposed. That’s a lot of people with a lot of power to have in your frenemies column three weeks into an administration. His only major ally right now may be Trump himself, who, according to Politico, thinks Flynn is “loyal and has expertise. Among others, there’s this perception he is wild, outside the box, not suited for the office. But I don’t think Donald thinks that at all.” Trump won’t fire Flynn lightly lest he be seen — gasp — as having made a major personnel error. And that’s especially true if the sanctions talk on the Kislyak call was done with Trump’s knowledge and approval.
In a Wall Street Journal report published Sunday, a Trump administration official said that Flynn has “apologized to everyone,” regarding the distracting controversy. They also pass along the claim that Bannon and Flynn had dinner over the weekend, but that Bannon both wants to keep Flynn around as well as “be ready” to let him go should that need arise. It’s not clear where Vice President Pence or Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and trusted advisor, stand on Flynn, but according to the Journal, some administration officials are hoping that Flynn will just resign on his own.
Trump himself had nothing to say about the story when asked about it on Friday night, though he just claimed he was not yet familiar with the reports about Flynn, which seems unlikely considering the apparently disproportionate amount of time Trump spends consuming news coverage every day. Trump has not weighed in on the story on Twitter, either, which is also out of character considering how widely discussed the scandal has been in the media. Indeed, Trump aides told the Times that the president was, in fact, closely watching the reaction to the Flynn story, so his silence may be telling. The Journal reported on Sunday that Trump has also privately told people that he finds the controversy around Flynn unwelcome, but another source said that Trump also wants to “keep moving forward” with Flynn.
Elsewhere, the Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin flags another reason why Flynn could find himself being boxed out of Trump’s circle of trust:
[Last] week a story also leaked that Trump called Flynn in the middle of the night to ask if the United States wanted a strong or weak dollar. How would that story have gotten out other than by Flynn relating it to others (either to the press directly or to colleagues who talked to the press)? At a time the White House is greatly alarmed by leaks, questions must surely be raised as to whether Flynn is sufficiently discreet.
If it turns out that Flynn has been one of the bigger leakers in the very leak-prone White House, his exit could calm the Trump administration turmoil in more ways than one. The Atlantic’s David Frum offers another calculated possibility, should Trump be willing to get rid of his once-trusted adviser: Flynn’s quick demise could present the White House with an opportunity for some much-needed political jujitsu regarding the Russian connection.
Flynn’s maladroitness in fact is the one thing that may have saved the administration from an even worse scandal: His reported lie was exposed so quickly that the uproar will thwart any project to lift early the sanctions on Russia for its role in the 2016 election. He has given the Trump administration an opportunity to localize what is really a much larger scandal.
They can now try to load all the blame for all the various sinister connections between the Trump campaign and Russian spy agencies onto one man, in an effort to protect everybody else implicated in the scandal, including the president himself.
Then again, as David Atkins argues at the Washington Monthly, if Trump maintains an ongoing and irrational allegiance to Flynn, it could also be the mark of a more devious consideration from within the White House:
There are any number of other advisers Trump could pick for basic national security issues, but few others he could rely on if in fact he were guilty of some sort of quid-pro-quo collusion with Putin in exchange for Russia’s help in the election. If Flynn were acting as a go-between, it would make sense that Trump would need to keep him close to avail himself of his continued help, and to ensure his continued silence and cooperation.
These are dark suspicions that require corroboration, of course, and should not be taken at face value without further evidence. But the fact that Trump refuses to let Flynn go despite the obvious political drawbacks can only help raise suspicions of the worst sort about this administration and its activities.
That’s an interesting theory, and certainly one that would confirm the worst fears (and biases) of those opposed to Trump, but it’s also important to note that ordinary political considerations have rarely seemed important to Trump, and it’s just as likely that he would hold onto Flynn because Donald Trump doesn’t like being forced to do something, doesn’t want to prove anyone right, or maybe just likes hearing Flynn’s jokes. All the political analysis notwithstanding, the norm-destroying new president is not a politician. It may thus be foolish to presume that Trump will be motivated by any kind of traditional political calculus rather than more self-centered concerns like a sense of embarrassment or personal betrayal, strong pushback from his daughter or son-in-law, or, perhaps, the discomfort of seeing a male associate portrayed by a woman. Then again, presuming Trump will cave under the political pressure to fire Flynn is no more foolish than a certain former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency not realizing that his phone call with a Russian ambassador might have been tapped by U.S. intelligence.
This post has been updated to incorporate new details contained in stories published by the New York Times and Wall Street Journal on Sunday night.