Last night, after weeks of controversy over what exactly he communicated to Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. before President Donald Trump took office, retired Army General Michael Flynn “retired” as National Security Advisor after 24 days on the job. This adds to the chaos of the new White House, but the problem goes deeper than that. It serves to fracture national security even further.
Flynn was forced out in record time after it became disturbingly clear that he had discussions in December with the Russian ambassador about a possible lifting of sanctions, just as the Obama administration was announcing new ones. Possible questions about an egregious violation of the Logan Act aside, Flynn then either lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those conversations, or got Pence to lie on his behalf. But no matter what, there was no way this looked good, and Flynn had to go.
This is more than just routine turnover. Flynn was the top national security aide in the West Wing, the one who led meetings with the Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense and coordinated the dissemination of intelligence briefings drafted by the National Security Council and provided to the president. Flynn was the person who was arguably supposed to be the president’s most trusted security aide, which makes his departure troubling and suspicious—and will add to the distrust America’s intelligence community has for the administration.
It also raises more questions over why he was selected for the role in the first place. The U.S. intelligence community had already accused Russia of hacking the U.S. election in Trump’s favor, and many believe the president has undisclosed business ties to Russia. Why, then, would he hire Flynn after the Kremlin paid him to speak at an RT gala in December of 2015?
The maelstrom of scrutiny the Trump administration is experiencing now could embolden congressional calls for an investigation into Trump’s dealings with Moscow. “Michael Flynn is only resigning because he got caught by press reports revealing improper contacts with Russia,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, the top Democrat on the subcommittee overseeing the CIA, told The Daily Beast. “We must learn the full extent of any prior and existing personal, financial and political relationship between Donald Trump and the Russian government.”
For Trump, Flynn’s resignation is an embarrassment. It shows that he isn’t capable of discerning which of his hires is a political liability. But there is a deeper concern. While there is a debate on whether Flynn violated the Logan Act, a mundane federal law that prohibits regular citizens from intervening in diplomatic issues between the U.S. and other countries, it is conceivable that the Russians manipulated him for their own gains.
Why does this keep happening, and why always with Russia? Let’s not forget that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, had to resign in the middle of the campaign because of his dealings with pro-Russia oligarchs. Carter Page had to resign from his role as a campaign foreign policy aide because of his ties to Russian leadership as well. Flynn is the third person to resign from Team Trump in less than a year, all over ties to Russia.
It didn’t take long for Russian lawmakers to rush to Flynn’s defense. Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, accused the White House of caving in to anti-Russian sentiments, according to the AP.
“Either Trump hasn’t found the necessary independence and he’s been driven into a corner... or Russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom.”
Alexei Pushkov, a senator in Russia’s upper house, tweeted, “Flynn was ‘pushed out’ not because of his mistake, but because of the unfolding campaign of aggression, ‘Russian for the Exit!’ shout the newspapers. Paranoia and a witch hunt.”
The claims of Russophobia make no sense, and it’s just another case of the Russians trolling the chaos in American politics. Last month, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that Flynn mislead them about his conversations with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak concerning U.S. sanctions against the Kremlin. He wasn’t supposed to talk about sanctions, but he likely did so anyway and lied to Vice President Mike Pence about it.
Flynn is the fall guy and had to go, but this makes Trump look far worse. Yates and senior-level intelligence officials told him that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail and Trump allowed him to work in the Oval Office for nearly a month before letting him go.
Naveed Jamali, a former operative who spied on the Russians for the FBI, doesn’t believe that Flynn was a spy, but told Foxtrot Alpha the Russians could have manipulated him for their purposes. He brings up the fact that Flynn was forced to retire from his role as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 because he reportedly clashed with his colleagues. Possibly frustrated with his government and wanting validation, the Russians may have swooped in to groom Flynn slowly over the years –not necessarily as a spy, but as a traditional Russian “useful idiot” – starting with the RT gala in 2015.
“On one level, your country has rejected you and the Russians opened their arms and soothed your ego,” said Jamali, who wrote about his spy days in his book, How to Catch a Russian Spy. “That’s a very powerful thing and that’s how manipulation works. That’s what (the Russians) do.”
It has not been confirmed that Flynn is a Russian mole or not but he certainly looks like one. Worse of all, Trump looks like a president who allowed a compromised senior-level intelligence official infiltrate the White House. It makes the U.S. look vulnerable.
So far, the calls for an investigation into Trump’s dealings are coming from the Democratic side of Congress, but that is going to have to change. A congressional tax oversight committee declined yesterday to request Trump’s tax returns and thus his possible business ties in Russia, according to Reuters.
But eventually, Republican leaders could realize this kind of thing is beginning to hurt the GOP brand. That sounds ironic, given that Trump has made a fortune carefully marketing his name as one of luxury and opulence. Now, it is one of political incompetence at the very least and, worse, possible Russian collusion. The GOP can’t continue defending a president who appears to be in Putin’s pocket.
Representative Maxine Waters (D-Calif) has been the loudest voice calling for Trump to be investigated for possible business ties to Russia. She may be a member of the minority party at the moment, but frustration over Trump could lead to the Democrats taking back the House and the Senate, where the GOP holds a slim majority.
Sam Wang, a Princeton University neuroscientist and statistician who has developed a statistical model for analyzing partisan gerrymandering, told the Chicago Tribune last week that it “would take an extreme event. The question is, are we seeing something that’s headed towards that?”
(Update: And now GOP senators are calling for an investigation into Trump’s ties to Russia, and want Flynn to testify.)
Flynn’s resignation over murky ties to Russia certainly fits that bill. Sure, many Americans may not seem to care that Russia hacked the U.S. election, but Trump’s National Security Advisor getting compromised by the Kremlin is another matter.
If you view Russian hacking as an attempt to disrupt the U.S., then it’s likely that senior-level officials in the Kremlin are gleefully rejoicing at the dysfunction taking place. Only three weeks into Trump’s first term in office, one of his most important appointees was forced to resign because he was not forthcoming about phone conversations he had with a Russian diplomat.
From the outside the White House looks vulnerable. Senior-level intelligence officials told Trump that Putin hacked the election. He didn’t believe them. Last month, they told him Flynn, his future national security advisor, may have been compromised by the Kremlin. He ignored them. For Russia-watchers, it is inconceivable that Russian intelligence officials could go to the Kremlin and tell Putin that America is hacking its election, and the former KGB officer wouldn’t believe him and claim America is his friend.
Trump is getting played by Putin right now, and so far his response has been to blame the media in a tweet. Not to mention that his blatant deflection is a classic Soviet propaganda tactic that is used to control (and play for a fool) the masses. For all of the talk about Obama being weak against Russia, Trump is the one who is getting owned from across the ocean and the GOP isn’t doing anything about it.
Michael Flynn is the fall guy, but right now, Russia has made American security look like a punchline. That’s the real story here.