Flynn Exit

Ken AshfordL'Affaire Russe, Trump & AdministrationLeave a Comment

So… less than a month into the Administration, Trumps’ National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, resigns.  WHY he resigned is important — he said (in a letter) that he regrets giving incomplete information to the Vice President.

Ummm…. interesting way to put it.

Another way to put it is… Flynn LIED to the Vice President.  And yet an even better way to put it is…. Flynn lied to the Vice President about whether or not he spoke to the Russians and told them to ignore Obama’s sanctions.

And yet another way to put it is…. Flynn opened himself to blackmail by the Russians for the having a conversation in violation of the Logan Act with Russians about Obama’s sanctions, and the White House knew about it as far back as a month ago…. and did nothing!

The White House would like to leave it at “Flynn lied to the Veep and that’s bad, but now he’s gone, so let’s move on.”

But lying to Pence is NOT the story.  The story is what he lied to Pence ABOUT.

And it is about how acting AG Sally Yates informed WH counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s vulnerability because he lied to Pence.

Aaaaaaand as I write this, Trump just tweeted another attempt at diversion:

Bzzzzzt.  I’m sorry. The leaks are not the “real story” either (and by the way, if the leaks ARE the problem, you’re still at fault, Donald.  It’s your administration!)

And it looks like congressional Republicans are ready to move on, too….

No, no, no.  This is not over. There are some very important open questions (from WaPo):

1. What, if anything, did Trump authorize Flynn to tell the Russians before his inauguration?

2. Why was Trump planning to stand by Flynn? “One senior White House official said that Trump did not fire Flynn; rather, Flynn made the decision to resign on his own late Monday evening because of what this official said was ‘the cumulative effect’ of damaging news coverage about his conversations with the Russian envoy,” Greg Miller and Philip Rucker report. “This official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation, said Trump does not relish firing people — despite his television persona on ‘The Apprentice’ — and had intended to wait several more days before deciding whether to seek Flynn’s resignation. ‘There obviously were a lot of issues, but the president was hanging in there,’ this official said.”

3. What did White House counsel Donald McGahn do after the then-acting attorney general notified him last month that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail? “In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared (Sally) Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House,” Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Philip Rucker report. “They feared that ‘Flynn had put himself in a compromising position’ and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled. … Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynn’s comments in the intercepted call to be ‘highly significant’ and ‘potentially illegal,’ according to an official familiar with her thinking. … A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that ‘we’ve been working on this for weeks.’”

Yates was accompanied by a senior career national security official when she alerted McGahn. What we don’t know is who McGahn subsequently shared that information with and what he did after the meeting. He didn’t respond to a request for comment last night from my colleagues.

“It’s unimaginable that the White House general counsel would sit on it (and) not tell anybody else in the White House,” said David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. “In every White House I’ve ever been in, this would go to the president like that,” he added during an interview on CNN, snapping his fingers.

If McGahn did indeed tell others, especially the president, how come Flynn kept his job until last night?

4. What is the status of the FBI investigation into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia? FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau’s ongoing investigation. “A turning point came after Jan. 23, when (Sean) Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with (Ambassador Sergey) Kislyak,” Adam, Ellen and Phil report. “Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue ‘again last night.’ There was just ‘one call,’ Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation. Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House.” Yates then spoke to McGahn.

5. Will Flynn face prosecution under the Logan Act? Yates and other intelligence officials suspected that Flynn could be in violation of the obscure 1799 statute, which bars U.S. citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with another country. But no one has ever been prosecuted under that law, so it is very, very unlikely.

Another mitigating factor: Jeff Sessions got confirmed as attorney general despite refusing to commit to recuse himself from DOJ inquiries into Trump and other administration officials.

6. What will the Senate Intelligence Committee uncover about contacts Flynn and others affiliated with Trump had with Russia before the election? U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, several sources have said. Communications between the two continued after Nov. 8. The Russian ambassador has even confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, though he declined to say what was discussed.

The committee led by Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) is continuing to explore Russian efforts to interfere with the election, including the intelligence community’s assessment that the Kremlin was attempting to tilt the election to Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a member of the committee, told reporters a few hours before Flynn resigned that his contacts with the Russian ambassador are part of the bipartisan inquiry. “This and anything else that involves the Russians,” Rubio said, per Kelsey Snell. “We’re going to go wherever the truth leads us.”

7. Who exactly is in charge at the White House? Yesterday was just the latest illustration of the chaos and dysfunction that plague the infant administration. Officials found themselves in an uncomfortable holding pattern for much of Monday, unsure about whether to defend Flynn and privately grumbling about the president’s indecisiveness.

“After Trump made it through a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau without being asked about Flynn, a group of reporters gathered outside Spicer’s office for more than 80 minutes,” Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report. “Spicer twice declined to answer questions about Flynn. When chief of staff Reince Priebus walked by, he was asked whether the president still had confidence in Flynn. Priebus gave no answer. Then, a few minutes later, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, declared on MSNBC that Trump had ‘full confidence’ in Flynn. Yet a few minutes later after that, Spicer issued an official — and conflicting — statement, saying Trump was ‘evaluating the situation.’” A few hours after that, Flynn was gone.

Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, a veteran of George W. Bush’s White House, opens his column today with a damning anecdote: Last month, Paul Ryan met with a delegation from the president-elect on tax reform. Attending were Priebus, Conway, Stephen K. Bannon, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, “Who’s in charge?” There was silence.

“It is still the right question,” Michael writes. “Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Trump’s White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. ‘The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,’ says one experienced Republican. ‘This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.’”

One yuge area of concern for me — Trump’s tweet above.  He (i.e., Bannon) might use this scandal to exert tighter control over the intelligence community.  Maybe even purge the non-Trumpians.  Then his power would be consolidated.

UPDATE: This isn’t good —

Executive privilege is something the PRESIDENT asserts, not the investigative body. It does not hurt to inquire.

and this:

So the Oversight Committee isn’t looking into it, and the Intelligence Committee isn’t looking into it.  We have no oversight now.

On the other hand:

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) told House Democrats Tuesday that the recent revelations about former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s conversations with the Russians are only the beginning, and more information will surface in the coming days, according to multiple sources in a closed party meeting.

Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, also said that any conversations that Flynn had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Donald Trump took office would not be covered by executive privilege, potentially making some information subject to congressional investigations. Republicans have so far balked at probing this matter.

Will this be swept under the rug, or will it be a slow drip?  I think (and hope) that latter.


EVEN LATER UPDATE — Spicer just gave his daily press conference, and we learned the White House take on this.  I suspect some of these claims will not hold up:

1. Spicer denied that Flynn or any other campaign officials were in touch with Russian government officials during the campaign. yes, during transition, but not during campaign.  He has a problem here in that this is flatly contradicted in multiple press reports.

2. Spicer insists that President Trump instinctively knew that what Gen. Flynn did was not wrong and his White House Counsel confirmed this for him.  I have a feeling White House Counsel’s view might come under more scrutiny.

3. Spicer claims that the President did not instruct Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. “No, absolutely not. No, no, no – no” was Spicer’s response.  Interesting though, because if what Flynn did was not wrong (according to Trump), then what would have been the problem if Trump DID tell Flynn to do it?

4. Spicer says that President Trump was not aware of the Flynn/Russia discussions when they happened and only learned of them after the DOJ briefed the White House Counsel.

In other words, Flynn lied to Pence about something insignificant and not illegal, and that’s why Trump could no longer trust him.

Does that make sense to anyone?

But there’s more, starting with Spicer’s timeline:

Flynn said in mid-January that he not discussed sanctions with Kislyak. On January 15, Vice President Mike Pence went on CBS and repeated that. According to Spicer, White House Counsel Don McGahn heard from then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates on January 26 about evidence that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, despite his denials. McGahn then brought the matter to Trump, who asked whether Flynn had broken the law. McGahn reported back that he did not think Flynn had broken the law.

According to Spicer, Trump then gradually lost trust in Flynn, over the period between January 26 and February 13, in what Spicer called “an evolving and eroding process.” He couldn’t say whether Flynn had intended to mislead Pence and others.

“I don’t know that it was intentional,” Spicer said. “He may have just forgotten [that he discussed the sanctions]. At some point that trust eroded to the point that the president did not feel comfortable and asked for an received his resignation.” He added that when Trump “thought it was time for a decision, he immediately made it.”

But the question is why Trump thought that Monday night was the time for a decision. After all, some three weeks passed between Yates’s call to McGahn and the actual firing. Spicer criticized the Justice Department for informing the White House of its suspicions about Flynn sooner, but it’s hard to square that criticism with the lengthy dithering the White House went through. If Trump had known about the calls 10 days earlier, moving his decision up by 10 days, that still would have been two weeks into his presidency.

Spicer wouldn’t say what made Trump change his mind about his national security adviser, who was a close ally during the campaign and spoke at the Republican National Convention, or why it took so long. Spicer said, somewhat cryptically, that the change was based on “this and a series of issues,” without elaborating.

Yet that, too, presents some contradictions with what was publicly known. If what Spicer says is true, Flynn continued lying about his conversations with Kislyak, telling The Washington Post as late as Wednesday that he had not discussed the sanctions with the Russian. If the White House knew that was untrue, why did it allow Flynn to reiterate it? Finally, on Thursday, Flynn admitted to the Post that he might have discussed the sanctions, though he could not recall for sure. On Friday, while flying to Mar-a-Lago, Trump was asked by a reporter about The Washington Post report including Flynn’s admission. The president answered as though he had no idea what was being asked. Spicer defended that by saying that Trump simply had not read the Post article, but Trump’s response is strange if he’d known for weeks that Flynn had misled.

Spicer’s story of Trump gradually losing trust in Flynn is at also at odds with a statement from Trump spokeswoman Kellyanne Conway Monday afternoon that Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn. Spicer and Conway’s accounts can’t both be true, though whether that’s a product of chaos or spin is unclear.

Perhaps the most troubling element of Spicer’s account is that if taken at face value, it makes it appear that Trump was for a time relatively untroubled by the fact that Flynn had misled both the vice president of the United States and, through him, the American people. For three weeks, he allowed Flynn to remain in his post as his top security aide. It was only when it became public that Flynn had misled Pence and the people that Trump moved and decided Flynn had to go. The worrisome implication is that Trump was OK with Flynn’s dissembling until anyone knew about it, which calls into question the White House’s honesty on other accounts. As Sean Spicer might put, it’s a matter of trust.

And hey. If Trump was informed about Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador, and referred the matter to White House counsel, then why was Flynn allowed to sit in classified security meetings in the interim?
Tomorrow, the White House will try to say “asked and answered” to everything.  But will that satisfy the press?  (Hint: it shouldn’t)