The Flynn crisis paralyzes the White House

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Washington Post

February 15.

Michael Flynn’s resignation from his post as national security adviser has sent tremors through the White House and the GOP more widely. An erratic, unconventional president now sits atop a White House in which virtually nothing the president, vice president and senior advisers say can be taken at face value. The ground has shifted quickly from a question of Flynn’s comments during the transition and his dishonesty about them to a much wider crisis over the Trump-Russia relationship.

Most important, the New York Times reports:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials. …

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

But the intercepts alarmed American intelligence and law enforcement agencies, in part because of the amount of contact that was occurring while Mr. Trump was speaking glowingly about the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. …

The officials said the intercepted communications were not limited to Trump campaign officials, and included other associates of Mr. Trump. On the Russian side, the contacts also included members of the government outside of the intelligence services, they said. All of the current and former officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the continuing investigation is classified.

Among those purportedly implicated include former campaign manager Paul Manafort (who denies any impropriety), Roger Stone, Carter Page and Flynn. Both Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer claimed that no such contacts occurred. Is the president covering up aides’ actions, or is he clueless? Was there a quid pro quo offered by Flynn or others for assistance that Trump received in the campaign? Did Trump intentionally hide behind his vice president, to whom Flynn lied? (The good news is that Spicer has taken to insisting Trump has been “tough” on Russia, a sign that Putin’s attempt to meddle with the election might convert Trump into a Russia hawk — if only to save his own hide.)

Second, the GOP’s stonewalling tactic is crumbling, at least on the Senate side. The Post reports:

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said such an investigation is “highly likely,” and the top two members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), stood side by side Tuesday to announce that the committee’s ongoing probe must include an examination of any contacts between Trump campaign officials and the Russian government.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wants to know what the president knew and what he directed. “I’d have a hard time believing that Gen. Flynn would get on the phone with a Russian ambassador and suggest, ‘Don’t worry, we will revisit this when we get to be president in terms of executive sanctions’ without some understanding that the administration would be sympathetic to the idea,” Graham said on CNN. “”I don’t know. He’s a pretty strong-willed fella, but I think most Americans have a right to know whether this was a Gen. Flynn rogue maneuver or was he basically speaking for somebody else in the White House.”

Such forthrightness makes House Republicans’ lack of investigative curiosity even more obvious — and egregious. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) looks especially craven in wanting to investigate only the leakers, not the president or Flynn. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) remains studiously uninterested in exploring the president’s ties to Russia, his conflicts of interest, his hotel lease with the General Services Administration or anything concerning Flynn. He has, however, shown new interest in one topic. CNN reports he is “launching an investigation into whether White House officials mishandled classified information over the weekend when President Donald Trump discussed a North Korean missile test with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.” Well, at least that’s something.

Third, not unreasonably, Democrats are calling for an independent investigation. After all, the intelligence agencies report ultimately to the president. High-ranking officials, including the president and his former national security adviser, are under a cloud of suspicion. On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) spoke to fellow Democrats at their weekly meeting. His office released a transcript of those comments, which included his plea for “an independent and transparent investigation, because the White House knew for weeks that General Flynn misled the Vice President and that his discussion about sanctions with the Russian government could potentially compromise our national security, because it was subject to blackmail.” Schumer explained how extensive he thinks the investigation must be:

Was General Flynn directed or authorized to do what he did? What was the extent of his conversations and contact with Russia? Who else from the Trump administration, transition or campaign, had contact with the Russians? And why wasn’t General Flynn fired? As soon as the administration found out, why did they act only when they were caught misleading the media?

These are just a few of the questions that need to be answered. And these questions shouldn’t just apply to General Flynn, but to senior officials in the Trump campaign transition and administration. Every one of these questions should be applied to all of them, as well.

Schumer also demanded that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself from the matter, citing Justice Department regulations that “specifically prohibit individuals who have political ties to the subjects of an investigation from leading that investigation.” Although he did not mention it this time, Schumer is sure to raise the demand that Trump release (or make available for inspection behind closed doors) his tax returns to determine the extent of his financial ties to Russia.

Fourth, criminal charges are potentially at issue here (including lying to the FBI and obstruction of justice), aside from the technicalities of the Logan Act, which prohibits private negotiations with a foreign power. The FBI reportedly has both phone logs and intercepted calls. As was done with Hillary Clinton, there is a serious criminal investigation underway, which only underscores how baffling was FBI Director James B. Comey’s decision to raise the Clinton investigation but not the Trump-Russia investigation during the campaign.

Fifth, we have yet to see the degree to which Pence’s relationship with the president has been marred by the latter keeping Pence in the dark about Flynn’s lie. Can Pence trust the president, and will Pence be willing to vouch for the president and senior aides in the future? Moreover, lawmakers and the public have reason not to trust Pence, not because he is dishonest, but because others are not honest with him.

In less than a month, Trump has managed to paralyze the entire White House, shake GOP confidence in him, lose a national security adviser, re-raise questions about his uninterrupted praise for Putin and reinvigorate calls for an outside investigation into his and his advisers’ contacts with Russia. Trump has accomplished virtually nothing — other than nominating a strong candidate for the Supreme Court and raising questions about his own mental stability and the potential for his removal from office (by impeachment, resignation or the 25th Amendment). He has proved his fiercest critics right about his unfitness to govern. And given how weird this presidency has become and how fast it has left the parameters of normal political behavior, it is hardly nutty to think there is a chance he won’t complete his term.