White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned Monday evening after the public learned he had discussed American sanctions with Russian officials, including ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in December, before the president had officially assumed office. Under the 1799 Logan Act, private citizens are not permitted to intercede in the government’s diplomatic affairs; Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, could be punished with up to three years in federal prison for his pre-inaugural chats with the Russian government.
Reuters reports that Flynn also lied to Vice President Mike Pence and claimed he hadn’t discussed sanctions on Russia, a fabrication proven false by communications intercepted by America’s own intelligence agencies. In his resignation letter, Flynn claimed that he “inadvertently” briefed Pence and other government officials with “incomplete information” due to the “fast pace of events” surrounding the transition following Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 presidential election.
The Flynn scandal is alarming, and not just because of what he wants to portray as an accidental violation of a centuries-old law. While the White House stated that Flynn hadn’t broken any laws, the “eroding” relationship between Flynn and the rest of the president’s staff hastened his departure. There’s nothing that the general did that was a violation of any sort,” said White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer. “What this came down to was a matter of trust.”
The only trust eroding here is with the American people. According to a New York Timesreport, the president knew about the issue for weeks before Flynn’s resignation: Sally Yates, the acting attorney general and Obama administration Department of Justice appointee who would eventually lose her job for defying Trump’s immigration executive order, apparently warned White House Counsel Donald McGahn about Flynn’s lying to Pence in official transcripts. To his credit, Trump learned “immediately” and directed McGahn to investigate the issue, but even after the counsel determined that Flynn hadn’t violated federal law, advisers reportedly spent weeks determining whether they could still trust him. Pence didn’t even know he’d been misled until weeks later, the Washington Postreports.
None of this bodes well for a Trump administration that assumed power amid widespread anxiety about Russian influence on the contentious 2016 election contest. The Flynn saga is yet another reminder of the deep connections between the Trump White House and the Kremlin.
It’s well known that Russia attempted to influence the course of the 2016 presidential election, with Putin himself directing an “influence campaign” designed to demean and denigrate Hillary Clinton and favor Trump. But it’s becoming clear that the tendrils of Moscow’s influence run deeper than the canard of “fake news,” or even the twin cyber attacks that damaged the Clinton campaign with the release of thousands of confidential emails and documents (per Trump’s “request”). Russia permeates the history of the Trump political enterprise as far back as former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and it’s now a matter of public record that the Trump campaign and assorted political allies were in contact with Russian officials in the run-up to the November election.
Flynn’s Russia ties should come as a surprise to no one. The general was paid to speak at a gala in December of 2015, one of many American officials who the Kremlin allegedly attempted to influence in this manner, according to the explosive dossier that sent ripples throughout Washington last month. After that, the Washington Post reported that Flynn and Kislyak’s engagements began well before Americans went to the polls on Election Day. They became close enough that, according to the Post, Flynn phoned Kislyak “several times” on December 29th, “the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation proceeded to interview Flynn almost immediately after Trump took office regarding intercepts of his conversations with Kislyak, obtained through routine National Security Agency surveillance of foreign officials. After lying to Pence — and, in turn, having Pence repeat said lie on national television, as the Times points out — Flynn was very likely “vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow,” in the Department of Justice’s view.
But Flynn isn’t the only cabinet-level staffer with deep ties to Russia with regards to sanctions: Just consider both Manafort and Carter Page, the early Trump foreign policy adviser investigated by the FBI for his alleged contact with Russian officials. And while Trump’s policy stances have evolved since the campaign trail, his pro-Russia bent manifested itself in Rex Tillerson’s ascension to secretary of state. Remember: Tillerson himself personally helped broker a $500 billion deal with Vladimir Putin and Russian oil firm Rosneft to develop oil reserves in the Arctic circle, a deal that was put on hold thanks to sanctions by the European Union and the United States on Russia following the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Exxon told Reuters in April that it will return to its joint venture “once sanctions against Moscow are lifted” — and Tillerson now finds himself in a position to expedite the process.
If we assume some level of comity with the Russian government, there are two possible reasons why the Trump administration kept its skepticism over the national security adviser under wraps for so long. First, Flynn was sloppy: He drew too much attention to whatever Russian backchanneling knocked Page and Manafort out of administration consideration long ago. But there’s also a second, more nefarious possibility: Perhaps the White House, too enthralled with its own private contacts with Russian officials, overlooked an actual national security threat right under its nose — something deeply embarrassing for a chief executive who ran a campaign bashing Clinton’s email insecurities. It’s clear, with Pence kept out of the loop, that there’s a unique ecosystem with its own unique ties to Russia emerging within the White House.
Flynn’s unseating, of course, will weaken a National Security Council already destabilized by the reshuffling of the principals committee to exclude the Joint Chiefs, Steve Bannon’s ascension to its helm, and the growth of the Bannon-led “Strategic Initiatives Group” meant to diminish the role of the body from within in the first place. Under Harry Truman, the NSC “was intended to serve as an advisory group for the president on national security matters,” BuzzFeed’s Nancy Youssef reminds us. “Before the US conducts a raid, it falls on the NSC to check over the proposed military plan. Could it lead to civilian casualties? What happens if it fails? How do other government agencies who could have pertinent information assess the decision?” In Trump’s case, that infrastructure is gone.
And that matters. The same day Flynn resigned, several Russian military aircraft buzzed a U.S. destroyer on a routine mission in the Black Sea. The Flynn saga hasn’t just weakened the American people’s trust in the Trump administration’s relationship with Russia — it’s made it difficult for Trump to ever earn back the public’s trust by doing what’s right.