Flynn Controversy Raises New Questions
The White House sought to present the resignation of President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, as a closed chapter tied to his deceiving Vice President Mike Pence on the nature of his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States. But as the shake up unfolds, the departure of Flynn raises more questions about the administration’s connections to Russia, the new president’s judgment, and investigations by Congress and government agencies.
Flynn resigned less than one month into the new administration after revelations that he had withheld the truth on speaking with the Russian ambassador about sanctions, and that the Department of Justice had shared concerns with the White House that he could be vulnerable to blackmail emerged on Monday night.
Flynn’s resignation is just the “beginning of what is going to be a long, drawn out process,” according to former Deputy Director of the CIA John McLaughlin.
“There are too many questions raised by this, so many that they can’t be answered by simply changing one position and then moving on,” he said. “…I think we’re at the beginning of a long period of clarification and controversy, which we just don’t need at this point.”
But retired four-star general and former Vice Chief of Army Staff Jack Keane told The Cipher Brief that “what we have here is a mistake in judgment by a key government official, which cost him his job. It happened in the first three weeks of the administration – certainly that is unusual – but I think that’s all it is,” Keane said.
The Washington Post on Monday evening posted a deep dive report looking at Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador to the United States before he took office, how he misled top Trump administration officials on his discussions about the sanctions against Russia, and that the Department of Justice told the White House last month that Flynn could possibly be vulnerable to blackmail.
Several hours after the Post’s story went live on Monday night, Flynn resigned.
The White House claimed on Tuesday that Flynn’s departure was due to Trump’s “erosion” of trust in Flynn after being aware for “weeks” that his advisor had misled Pence and other top administration officials about the nature of his contact with the Russian ambassador. Flynn repeatedly said he did not discuss sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a declaration Pence vouched for in an interview with CBS in January.
Trump has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and made several statements supporting Kremlin policy both during the campaign and since coming into office. Trump recently told Fox News that he respected Putin and put the U.S. on the same grounds as the Russian President, who interviewer Bill O’Reilly said was a “killer.” Trump replied, “there are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?”
During the campaign, he said the U.S. would only defend NATO countries if they had “fulfilled their obligations to us” and that he would “be looking at” recognizing Crimea as a part of Russia and lifting sanctions imposed after the 2014 annexation.
In the wake of Flynn’s exit, Trump has asked retired General Keith Kellogg to serve as the acting National Security Advisor. According to reports, there are three likely potential full-time replacements for Flynn — Kellogg, retired General David Petraeus, the former director of the CIA, who resigned after acknowledging an affair with his biographer and later pled guilty to mishandling classified information, and former Vice Admiral Bob Harward.
Trump on Tuesday sought to shift focus away from Flynn by claiming on Twitter that “the real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?”
Although White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer also complained about leaks, he told reporters “the issue, plain and simple, came down to a matter of trust.” The President was informed that Flynn had not told the truth about his discussions with Russia’s ambassador weeks ago, Spicer said at Tuesday’s daily briefing, and his team had been “reviewing and evaluating this issue on a daily basis trying to ascertain the truth.”
“The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation in a series of other questionable instances is what led the President to ask for General Flynn's resignation,” Spicer said.
Spicer told reporters that Trump did not instruct Flynn to discuss U.S. sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador during their late December conversations. The Obama Administration had just imposed sanctions in response to the Intelligence Community’s determination that Russia interfered with the U.S. presidential election by hacking political organizations in an effort to help the Trump campaign.
“I think the problem would be simply one of propriety, of consorting with a country that has quite clearly interfered in our election,” McLaughlin said. “In a sense, condoning that. So, it’s more of a question of judgement and propriety than a legal question to me.”
According to the White House’s timeline, during the time of the “eroding” trust between Flynn and Trump, Flynn had continued serving in his role as the president’s chief advisor on security issues and even had a surprise appearance in the White House briefing room to put “Iran on notice” for its ballistic missile test.
A number of top Republicans in Congress backed the Trump administration in the wake of Flynn’s resignation. House Speaker Paul Ryan said, “I think it’s really important that as soon as they realized that they were being misled by their National Security Advisor, they asked for his resignation.”
And House Oversight Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) told reporters on Tuesday that there will not be a deeper probe into Flynn from his end. The situation is “taking care of itself,” Chaffetz said.
The House and Senate Intelligence Committees are currently conducting respective investigations into Russian interference in the U.S. election. The Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees are also looking into the issue.
Some Congress members from both sides of the aisle on Tuesday called for expanding the probes to include Flynn’s conduct.
Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, who is on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said that the committee “should talk to Gen. Flynn very soon” as it investigates the ties between Trump and Russia.
"I think that we should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned, and shouldn't reach conclusions before you have the information that you need to have to make those conclusions,” he told a radio show.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long a fierce critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, released a statement calling Flynn’s resignation “a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus” and saying it “also raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia.”
Democrats widely called for broader investigations into the Trump campaign’s and administration’s contacts with Russia.
"The American people deserve to know the full extent of Russia's financial, personal and political grip on President Trump and what that means for our national security," House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, released a statement saying that Flynn’s departure “does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians.”
“These alleged contacts and any others the Trump campaign may have had with the Kremlin are the subject of the House Intelligence Committee's ongoing investigation,” Schiff said. “Moreover, the Trump Administration has yet to be forthcoming about who was aware of Flynn's conversations with the Ambassador and whether he was acting on the instructions of the President or any other officials, or with their knowledge."
Flynn’s departure “is the tip of an iceberg,” McLaughlin said.
“When you have that kind of situation, one of two things is happening: either the White House is deliberately misleading, or people within the White House are not being truthful with each other. There’s clearly some mixture of communications problems, management issues, and substantive problems all swirling about in some kind of chaotic mixture at this point,” he said.
Mackenzie Weinger is a national security reporter at The Cipher Brief. Follow her on Twitter @mweinger.