President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned late on Monday after revelations that he had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office and misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
Flynn’s resignation came hours after it was reported that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks ago that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail for contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before Trump took power on Jan. 20.
Flynn’s departure was a sobering development in Trump’s young presidency, a 24-day period during which his White House has been repeatedly distracted by miscues and internal dramas.
The departure could slow Trump’s bid to warm up relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
#Flynnghazi: What the Flynn debacle tells us about the Trump presidency
It wasn’t long ago that Michael Flynn, who resigned as U.S. National Security Adviser Monday night, was seen as giving struggling presidential candidate Donald Trump some much-needed legitimacy.
Gone after 24 days in his role, Flynn is the victim of his own mistakes – not least being less-than-truthful to senior administration officials, including the vice president, about what he said to the Russian ambassador shortly before inauguration.
For Trump, Russia is now toxic.
If there was ever a secret conspiracy between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump – or simply those around him – to shape events in Washington, it has already run off the rails.
Very few people believe anything Russia might have done – even hacking Democratic National Party emails – was enough to swing the election in Trump’s favor. But the suggestion of an improper link is now ubiquitous, and it’s not going away.
The truth may matter less than perception. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, prior to Trump’s inauguration, were unorthodox. His business dealings in Moscow have also fueled rumors that, even more so than the president, Flynn was somehow “compromised”. But given the lingering suspicions surrounding Trump’s relationship with Putin, the Trump administration cannot afford to look “weak” – and certainly not manipulated – on anything to do with Russia.
For the Trump White House, no one is untouchable. (Except perhaps the president.)
Flynn was always a controversial figure – and his endorsement of the Trump campaign hardly made him less so. Even at the Defense Intelligence Agency, he had many detractors, including those who accused him of making up “Flynn facts” to support his arguments when he needed them. The sight of him leading anti-Hillary Clinton chants of “Lock her up” was enough to persuade some of America’s most respected former military officers to state publicly that former generals should stay out of politics.
But for all his enemies – and his extreme views on the “dangers” of Islam – he still had fans within the intelligence and security community and beyond.
In the White House, Flynn was eclipsed almost immediately by Defense Secretary and former Marine James “Mad Dog” Mattis. An asset during the campaign, Flynn became almost immediately a liability.
It’s a lesson others in the administration – from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to more comfortably ensconced figures such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon or Chief of Staff Reince Priebus – should consider.
It’s not (quite) a “post-truth” world. Provable lies can be fatal.
What Flynn actually said to the Russian ambassador wasn’t what doomed him, it was the perception that he lied – most specifically to Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn may have been undone by the fact that U.S. intelligence agencies were, as usual, monitoring calls in and out of the Russian Embassy and were able to provide the administration with transcripts.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he “inadvertently” briefed Pence with “incomplete information” regarding the calls. The result was that Pence publicly announced Flynn had not mentioned sanctions in his Russian discussions – something that was simply not true.
It’s an awkward situation for the White House, particularly because the president has shown himself to be an equally unreliable witness. His attempts to inflate the number of people who attended his inauguration have already hurt his reputation – and weakened his position when it comes to persuading others to tell the truth.
What Flynn has demonstrated, however, is that there are limits to what you can get away with. Misleading the vice president or other senior officials can be fatal. The president can get away with more than anyone else – not least because he is so difficult to remove – but even he might struggle if found to have lied to Congress or the American people on something important.
The Logan Act
Michael Flynn’s conversations with a Russian diplomat roiled the White House and put a spotlight on a little-enforced law prohibiting U.S. citizens from trying to influence a foreign government in disputes with the United States.
Flynn resigned as national security adviser late Monday after conceding that he may have discussed U.S. sanctions in phone calls with Russia’s ambassador to the United States while Barack Obama was still in office. Those conversations may have violated the Logan Act, which aims to bar private citizens from conducting diplomacy, though White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that no legal issues arose.
Still, the centuries-old act has been so rarely invoked that legal experts say it may no longer be valid. And no one has been found guilty of violating the act in its more than 200-year history.
Lawmakers enacted the Logan Act in 1799 after George Logan, a friend of Thomas Jefferson, made a private visit to France in an attempt to ease tensions with the United States after the French Revolution. That trip was sharply criticized back home as an inappropriate interference in affairs between the two countries, prompting the passage of the law.
Since then, there appear to have been very few indictments, and no prosecutions, under the obscure act. Legal experts say that would make potential violations even harder to prove in court.
Discussing economic sanctions against Russia with the Russian envoy during the American presidential transition could have been a violation of the act. But that doesn’t mean it will result in charges against Flynn. Prosecutors, for questions of resources or interpretations of the law, sometimes opt not to pursue criminal cases even when presented with a clear violation. And when it comes to the Logan Act, they would have to overcome a difficult defense that Flynn’s phone calls were protected free speech. They would also have to prove Flynn was actually acting without the authority of the United States.
Has #Flynnghazi started?