White House press secretary Sean Spicer said today that President Trump is still “evaluating the situation” regarding Michael Flynn, his national security adviser. This statement suggests that Flynn is in hot water with Trump.
Flynn’s problem arises from allegations that he communicated with Russian officials about sanctions before Trump took office. In response to these allegations, Flynn may have been less than fully candid with Vice President Pence when he described his conduct, perhaps causing Pence to mislead the public about the matter. Indeed, Flynn reportedly has apologized to Pence, which suggests that he did the vice president a disservice.
I think the analysis of his controversy is straightforward: (1) the conversation between Flynn and Russians, if it occurred, is not a big deal; (2) being less than fully truthful with Mike Pence would be a serious matter.
Let’s start with the alleged conversation with the Russians. The claim is that after the election, Flynn talked to Russia’s ambassador about sanctions, perhaps suggesting that they might be lifted if relations improve.
Flynn’s enemies argue that such a conversation would violate the Logan Act. It forbids U.S. citizens from communicating with foreign governments “with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.”
Depending on what Flynn said to the ambassador, if he said anything, it can be argued that his communication was intended to influence Russia’s response to sanctions then-President Obama had just slapped on and/or to undermine these sanctions. In context, though, this argument seems like a stretch. Russia knew that Obama was on his way out. It also knew that Trump had promised a fresh look at American policy towards Russia.
Thus, I agree with David Goldman that even if reports of the conversation are true, Trump need not remove Flynn over it. (Goldman, by the way, sees the attack on Flynn as part of a CIA vendetta against the retired general).
Misleading Mike Pence, if that’s what Flynn did, is another matter. Obviously, the president and the vice president should be able to count on the national security adviser for honest reports about his conversations with foreign ambassadors (and about all other matters). If Flynn was not honest, that’s a problem.
In that event, Trump presumably will evaluate how materially Flynn may have misled Pence and whether he did so intentionally. He might also weigh Flynn’s value to the administration as compared to possible successors, and the political ramifications of sacking Flynn at this juncture (though I hope this consideration is peripheral at best).
Trump probably has a sense already of Flynn’s value. In the end, that sense — whatever it is — may well decide his fate.
UPDATE: The Washington Post reports that Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, told the White House late last month that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail because he had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Readers probably recall that President Trump had to fire Yates because she refused to carry out his executive order.
According to the Post, James Clapper, then the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, then the CIA director, shared Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House about the alleged prospect of blackmail. If I recall correctly, Clapper and Brennan are the same luminaries who thought reports about Trump being subject to blackmail over “golden showers” in a Moscow hotel needed to be shared.
The prospect of Flynn being blackmailed by the Russians over this business seems far-fetched, if less so than the “water sports” story. I can’t help but suspect that the concern was animated by hostility towards Flynn and, quite possibly, Trump.
This is not to excuse Flynn for misleading Pence and others, if that’s what happened. Blackmail or no blackmail, if the misleading was material and intentional, it would be solid grounds for getting a new national security adviser.
Indeed, Flynn’s days may well be numbered, and the number may well be low. Politico reports that Jared Kushner is involved in a search for candidates to replace Michael Flynn, with David Petraeus in the picture. Like Flynn, Petraeus hasn’t always been a model of discretion.
ONE MORE THING: It’s clear from the Post’s report that Sally Yates and the others discovered that the Russians conceivably could blackmail Flynn by listening to a recording of the Russian ambassador’s phone call with Flynn. That’s how they learned Russia could show Flynn might have misled Pence about what was said during the call.
Thus, the Post has reported that the U.S. is tapping the Russian ambassador’s phone. Now, maybe the Russians already know, or assume, this. On the other hand, it may be that the Post has harmed U.S. intelligence gathering capability by running its breathless “blackmail” story.