Howard Baker’s Words and the Flynn Controversy

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

“What did the President know and when did he know it?”

For those of us who went through Watergate, that question, first posed by Sen. Howard Baker (R-TN), is the one most relevant today as the current White House drama unfolds with President Donald Trump’s role hardly mentioned.

At 6:28 a.m. yesterday morning, Trump wrote from the White House: “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?”

That presidential tweet should make people uneasy, the way we felt nervous during Watergate about what military actions President Richard Nixon might undertake as the truth began to threaten him personally.

Trump was initiating what can only be described as a typical attempt to divert his roughly 25 million followers from paying attention to what he and his own White House have been caught doing.

More than 50 years ago, on the very first day I showed up for work to run an investigation of foreign government lobbyists for Sen. J.W. Fulbright (D-AR), then Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he told me, “Remember, it’s not what you did that counts, it’s what you did after you were caught.”

Washington, believe it or not, is a very forgiving town to government officials, including members of Congress, if they confess to misdeeds.

But what has always brought people down is when they try to cover up what they have done.

There clearly was an effort within the Trump transition team, beginning in early January, and after Jan. 20 within the Trump White House, to cover up the substance of then-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s discussions via telephone and texting with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 28 and Dec. 29.

They talked about the Obama sanctions against Russia for intervening in the U.S. presidential election that were announced Dec. 29, which included forcing 35 Russian diplomats to leave the U.S. and adding Putin associates and Russian intelligence elements to the sanctions list.

Did Flynn, who was meeting regularly with Trump, report to the President-elect about his conversations with Kislyak? He must have reported what went on with some colleagues, and probably the President, because they also discussed timing of a phone call between the two leaders and possible American attendance at a Syrian peace conference Russia, Turkey, and Iran were arranging for Jan. 23.

On Dec. 30, Putin publicly called Obama’s sanctions a “provocation,” but nevertheless he did not respond as usual – tit for tat — by ejecting American diplomats from Russia. Instead, Putin even invited U.S. Embassy children to a holiday party in Moscow.

Hours after Putin’s unusual response was reported, President-elect Trump, at 2:41 p.m., Dec. 30, tweeted, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”

Was Flynn consulted about that tweet?

The December Flynn-Kislyak exchanges were not publicly disclosed until Jan. 12, when Washington Post columnist David Ignatius first wrote about them. In that very first column, Ignatius questioned, “did it [the Flynn-Kislyak exchange] undercut U.S. sanctions?”

Ignatius specifically mentioned the Logan Act, which he said “though never enforced, bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about ‘disputes’ with the United States.”

Ignatius not only questioned in his column, “Was its spirit violated?” meaning the law, but then apparently asked the transition team directly about it, writing, “The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.”

The public is asked to believe that neither the president nor his other advisors took this seriously. Perhaps the Trump group felt in the clear because Ignatius concluded, “if the Trump team’s contacts helped discourage a counter-retaliation, maybe it’s a good thing.”

The Post column certainly should have put Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence, Flynn, and the transition team on notice they had an issue to deal with. Somebody had to make inquiries since it was quickly picked up by the press and was among questions asked Sean Spicer the next day, Jan. 13.

Spicer, then spokesman for the Trump transition, had clearly talked to Flynn at some length because he gave the press that day what he said was a “tick-tock” on the exchanges. He talked of holiday wishes exchanged and focused on the Dec. 28 call, which he said “centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the President of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn-in, and they exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and schedule that call.”

On Jan. 15, Pence on CBS Face the Nation, said, “I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.” Asked if there might have been other conversation about sanctions, Pence responded, “I don’t believe there were more conversations.”

No one has asked Trump direct questions about what Flynn told him during this entire period.

Spicer, in yesterday’s press conference, tried several times to divert focus.

Once it was to get the media to focus on leaked information and its danger to “national security,” but it’s difficult to see what the threat is from facts about a discussion between the Flynn and Kislyak that took place almost two months ago.

Another Spicer diversion was to question why the Justice Department delayed until Jan. 26 telling the White House counsel the intelligence community leaders knew there was information indicating Flynn was not telling the truth about the substance of his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

That was almost two weeks, Spicer said, from Jan. 13, when he misinformed the press about Flynn’s conversations, and then Pence’s Jan. 15 statement on CBS.

“Why did it take so long?” Spicer asked yesterday, “I think the first question should be, where was the Department of Justice in this? They were – they were aware of this.”

There is a long, controversial history about how U.S. intelligence officials should act when they see that officials are either distorting, misstating, or providing information that is wrong publicly. It came up several times during the Iran-contra affair and again during the run up to the Iraq War.

Of course that diversion overlooks the fact that the Trump team was on notice beginning Jan. 12 that there was a Logan Act question, and if you believe them, they either never seriously looked at it or didn’t care.

Now there is the question of why, after Trump learned from his counsel on Jan. 26, did it take him until late evening of Feb. 13 to fire him.

One answer: The Washington Post published a story on the morning of Feb. 13 about the Justice Department informing the White House about the substance of Flynn’s conversations, revealing that there was a cover-up going on.

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