The resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn is just the beginning. Flynn resigned following a Washington Post report that he privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with its ambassador to the United States in the weeks prior to President Donald Trump taking office. The sanctions had been imposed by the Obama administration because Russia had meddled with the 2016 election. Flynn had reportedly urged that Russia not overreact to the sanctions indicating they would be revisited at a later time.
Flynn has been one of Trump's closest advisers for more than a year. It is hard to believe that Trump had no knowledge of Flynn's conversations with the Russian ambassador. Democrats are asking for answers. "We in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing the risks," Representatives John Conyers Jr. and Elijah E. Cummings said in a joint statement. "We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to out national security."
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the Trump White House last month that she believed Flynn had mislead administration officials about the content of his conversation with the Russian ambassador and was vulnerable to blackmail. Yates was subsequently fired when she announced she would not enforce Trump's travel ban. Flynn continued his role atop Trump's national security team, and told Vice President Mike Pence that he did not discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Pence subsequently defended Flynn in a series of appearances on public affairs programs.
In his resignation letter Monday Flynn wrote, "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 Vice President, and they have accepted my apology."
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer addressed Flynn's firing at his press briefing Tuesday. "This is not an illegal issue, but a trust issue," he said. Spicer explained that the president had been immediately informed of the situation, and that Flynn's conversation with the Russian ambassador was subjected to a legal review and "there was no issue with that." He added, "It came down to a matter of trust...misleading the vice president and others...once that occurred it was over." The president asked for Flynn's resignation. Spicer also noted that the president had been "tough on Russia...and had called for Russia to deescalate the violence in Ukraine and to return Crimea."
To date President Trump has been reluctant to publicly criticize Russia and President Vladimir Putin. There have been reports that U.S. intelligence agencies have recently been withholding information from Oval Office briefings, "amid fears the Kremlin has ears inside the White House situation room."
For his part, President Trump Tweeted Tuesday morning, "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?" In his briefing, Spicer amplified the president's concern, stating, "The president is clearly upset about this and views it as a threat to national security." We will never know what would have happened with Flynn had the issue not been leaked to the press.
Republican Senator John McCain said Tuesday, "I think there is significant dysfunction in the national security apparatus of the Trump administration." Republican Senator Roy Blunt on Tuesday called for an exhaustive investigation into ties between Russia and the Trump administration. "The Senate Intelligence Committee...should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of the process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned," he said. Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer called for an "independent and transparent investigation," noting that the White House counsel cannot lead an investigation, nor can Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who is a political appointee. In a statement, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi said, "The American people deserve to know the full extent of Russia's financial, personal and political grip on President Trump and what it means for our national security."
In late 2016, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence completed a report detailing Russian interference in November's election. The report concluded, "Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered and influence campaign aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Hillary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency." President-elect Trump rejected the report saying Democrats were over reacting to their loss. On December 29, President Obama ordered 35 Russian diplomats expelled from the U.S. and broadened existing Russian sanctions. Rather than the usual tit-for-tat response, President Putin inexplicably said he would not immediately react to the U.S. actions. President-elect Trump praised Putin's response.
Flynn's resignation is just the latest chapter in this evolving story. Would Flynn discuss easing Russian sanctions without the president's advance knowledge? Was Flynn directed to have the discussion? Is Flynn just the scapegoat for an inappropriate Trump initiative to return a favor to Putin? Is this what Trump would call "The Art of the Deal"?