The Trump administration has only just finished its third week in office, and already a senior official has resigned.
And there’s a very real possibility that he won’t be the only one.
Rumors of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s impending demise have been circulating for much of the last week. The allegations against Flynn state that he spoke with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak multiple times, including in December just hours before the Obama administration levied new sanctions against Russia for its interference in the U.S. elections (of which Trump, and thus Flynn, was the major beneficiary). Specifically, Flynn allegedly discussed the sanctions themselves with Kislyak and may have discussed possible softening of sanctions under a Trump administration. This would be illegal under the Logan Act which bars private U.S. citizens from interfering with diplomatic efforts.
Flynn at first denied the allegations, and on January 15, then Vice President Elect Mike Pence told CBS definitively that Flynn never discussed sanctions with Kislyak, but new evidence published by The Washington Post last week suggested otherwise. Last week Flynn said he could not be sure if sanctions were discussed or not.
National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say
National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country's ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said. Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S.
Flynn’s new problem was not only that he may have broken the law, but he embarrassed the Vice President and opened him up to legal questions as well.
As a result, the debate for several days has been a discussion about whether Mike Pence or Mike Flynn would resign first. This debate tells us a lot about what is really going on inside the Trump administration.
What did Flynn allegedly do and why does it matter?
The White House has maintained from the start that Flynn only discussed logistical matters with the Russian diplomat. This would likely not be illegal, but the timing of this conversation, the same day as new sanctions were passed, was enough to raise eyebrows.
If indeed sanctions were discussed, however, Flynn and the White House have a different problem. First, Flynn was not an acting government official at that moment, so he was not authorized to conduct diplomacy. Discussing sanctions would have been a violation of the Logan Act which bans private individuals from interfering in diplomacy. It could have undermined the Obama administrations efforts. It may have been a breach in security protocol since Flynn may have been relaying classified information to a foreign power. It could have empowered the newly-sanctioned Russians to move assets out of the country before they were frozen. And it would have raised questions as to Flynn’s motivations. Was he paid to do so? Was he being blackmailed? This scenario raises many serious questions.
If Flynn was more interested in helping the Russians than in serving his country, that could constitute treason.
But Flynn and the White House repeatedly insisted that sanctions were not discussed.
That is, until Flynn said that he could not recall if they were discussed, which he said after the Washington Post said that, according to senior government officials, sanctions were discussed.
As the controversy grew, Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway took to the television on Monday to say that Trump had full confidence in Flynn. But then, later on, the news also broke that the Department of Justice was worried that Flynn had misinformed Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of his talks with Kislyak. That article suggested sanctions were discussed, and the Russians might blackmail Flynn because they knew he lied to Pence. That same article suggested that, separately, the Army was investigating whether Flynn took money from Russia to travel to Moscow in 2015 which, since he was a former military officer, would be a breach of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.
White House Sends Mixed Signals About Trump's Confidence in Michael Flynn
Washington – Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, faced an uncertain future on Monday as the White House sent out a series of conflicting signals about whether he had the confidence of President Trump and whether he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of a call between Mr. Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Hours later Flynn resigned, and a day later White House press secretary Sean Spicer told the world that Trump demanded Flynn’s resignation because Trump could no longer trust Flynn.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said that he provided Vice President Mike Pence with “incomplete information.”
“In the course of my duties as the incoming National Security Advisor, I held numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers, and ambassadors. These calls were to facilitate a smooth transition and begin to build the necessary relationships between the President, his advisors and foreign leaders. Such calls are standard practice in any transition of this magnitude.
“Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the President and the Vice President, and they have accepted my apology.”
Spicer’s story makes no sense
Spicer told the press on Tuesday that the White House had been aware of the Justice Department’s concerns for a few weeks and were investigating whether laws were breached. Once the White House determined that no laws had been broken, they had to resolve other issues of trust with Flynn. Ultimately, trust had “eroded” between Flynn and the President, and Flynn was asked to resign.
But Spicer also maintained that the White House has full confidence that Flynn never discussed sanctions with the Russian diplomat, and all of Flynn’s activities were in line with his work as National Security Adviser. As Flynn said in his resignation letter, such conversations were “standard practice.”
And those two statements make absolutely no sense.
The core conflict between the Pence and Flynn was that Pence went on TV and said that Flynn never discussed sanctions with the Russians. If the White House is confident, even now, that this is the case, then what did Flynn do to breach his trust with the White House? What “incomplete information” did Flynn give Pence if he never spoke about sanctions and he told Pence he never spoke about sanctions? Furthermore, Spicer essentially confirmed to the press corps that the Justice Department did indeed come to the White House with its concerns. Spicer also confirmed that Flynn’s conversations were taped and transcripts exist, and yet he refused to indicate whether they would be made public. If transcripts of Flynn’s conversations exist, that appears to confirm the story that Flynn has been under a FISA warrant, and thus is being investigated for possible criminal wrongdoing.
In other words, if Flynn did not break the law by discussing sanctions then why was the Justice Department concerned and what did he do to break trust with Trump? If he did discuss sanctions with the Russians, then why is Spicer covering it up?
Controversy doesn’t bother Trump — this is bigger than that
There has perhaps never been a more scandal-prone administration than this one. Going as far back as its existence, multiple scandals have wracked the Trump campaign on topics spanning a huge gamut: allegations of sexual assault, treason, racism, sexism, fraud, mental instability and/or illness, tax evasion… the list goes on. Just weeks before the inauguration, new allegations surfaced that Trump and his campaign were being blackmailed by and were colluding with the Kremlin. When a historically-small crowd showed up to the inauguration (I was there, and I was also at the first inaugurations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and I was shocked at the small size and general lack of enthusiasm in Trump’s crowd), Trump’s administration started their first press conference by blatantly lying and abusing the press, and a multitude of controversies have plagued the White House, and press secretary Sean Spicer, as a result ever since.
And yet during all of this, only two high-profile Trump staffers have lost their jobs: Mike Flynn, and Paul Manafort — both of whom have been accused of inappropriate or potentially illegal actions that benefited the Russian government in ways that undercut US foreign policy.
Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, resigned after he came under intense public scrutiny for his role in defying NATO and propping up a pro-Russian dictator. That scrutiny came after a series of pro-Russian and anti-NATO statements were made by Donald Trump and his surrogates.
The only other character to be thrown under the bus by Trump was Carter Page. Page was named by Trump as one of his foreign policy advisers before Trump wrapped up the Republican nomination. But no experts knew who Page was. As it turns out, Page was a relatively minor figure, an oil trader who did business with the Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom. Once Page’s Gazprom links came to light, the Trump campaign said that Page did not work for the campaign, then claimed Trump never knew Page. So who is Page, and what role did he have in the Trump campaign, and why did he say he was part of the Trump team even after the Trump campaign disowned him? None of these questions have ever been answered.
Again — none of the other controversies have led to firings from the Trump administration. Only allegations about Trump’s ties to Russia have received such treatment.
Many of these concerns — about Flynn, Manafort, Page, other associates of Donald Trump, and Donald Trump himself — were raised and investigated last year, before the election, by The Interpreter and The Daily Beast.
Trump and Russia: All the Mogul's Men
Follow the Money This is the fourth and last in our series of articles laying out all you ever wanted to know about Trump and Russia, but were afraid to ask. Read parts one, two and three. Between the summer of 2015 and the GOP convention a year later, a great many pundits were surprised by the rise of Donald Trump.
Now there are new questions. Is the FBI honestly investigating these allegations? Have laws been broken? Did the Trump team cut a deal with Russia before Trump was sworn in, and did Flynn’s alleged conversations revolve around that deal?
Above all, can we be confident that the White House is not compromised by a foreign power, an American adversary, a dictator — Vladimir Putin?
Right now the answer to that question is no, and Sean Spicer’s answers at today’s press conference have further shaken that confidence.
And nothing about this feels like “standard practice.” If we’re not being lied to, it certainly feels like we’re being lied to. And if we are being lied to, it feels a lot like treason.
— James Miller