President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned Monday night, driven out of the job after just 24 days by a torrent of leaks suggesting he lied to colleagues, who in turn lied to the public, about his pre-inauguration conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The leaks themselves, and Flynn’s departure, were rightly interpreted as major stories, but the theory of what motivated the leaks, and then the departure, remains unclear. Flynn has a famously hostile relationship with much of the intelligence community. Did his professional enemies simply sense an opening and take revenge? Does the Trump White House, which routinely lies to the public, really believe that lying to colleagues is a fireable offense (if and when the press gets wind of it)? Relatedly, what did Trump know and when did he know it? Does this story have anything to do with the Moscow-directed subversion campaign aimed at helping him defeat Hillary Clinton?
These are all good questions, but they point to a fairly widespread lack of clarity about what makes the reported facts of the story so damning (beyond how embarrassing it is for Trump, who only hires “the best people,” to lose one of his closest advisers in such an embarrassing way). To see why Flynn had to go, and why the story is likely to engulf more people, it’s useful to look at the Flynn-specific leaks in isolation, as if the larger story about Trump, his aides, Russia, the infamous opposition-research dossier, and so much else doesn’t exist.
In that confined universe, the story begins with an incoming administration that wants to normalize relations with Russia, and an outgoing one that has just imposed new sanctions on Russia’s government. The president-elect’s national security adviser thus conducts a little unofficial diplomacy, in a series of phone calls with Russia’s ambassador on the day the sanctions are announced, to prevent things from escalating before the transition is complete. This would perhaps technically qualify as a violation of the Logan Act, prohibiting private citizens from meddling in U.S. foreign policy. But that law seems almost entirely unenforceable, and—let’s face it—if an incoming administration thinks the outgoing one has shit the diplomatic bed, how much restraint should we expect them to show? Flynn perhaps should’ve held off, but Trump himself flouted the one-president-at-a-time convention constantly, and in much more galling ways.
The big problem really began when Vice President Mike Pence, followed by press secretary Sean Spicer, told the public that Flynn and Kislyak hadn’t discussed sanctions at all. The issue, though, wasn’t—as wishfully-thinking Republicans have it today—that Flynn had lied to his colleagues, per se. It was that the discrepancy between what actually happened on the calls (which were presumably recorded by Russian surveillance) and what Pence and Spicer were telling the public left Flynn potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail: Give us what we want, or we’ll rat you out; give us what we want, or we’ll prove the Trump administration has been dishonest with the American people.
That is reportedly what motivated the Justice Department to inform White House counsel Doug McGahn that Flynn had lied, and may thus be compromised. Per the Washington Post, “Officials [say] there was no evidence that Russia had attempted to exploit the discrepancy between public statements by Trump officials and what Flynn had discussed.” But still, the best-case, though highly implausible, scenario was that Flynn had gone rogue, acted without instructions, lied to everyone, and Trump was only made aware of that fact this past weekend; the White House had suffered a temporary breach at—but confined to—the level of the national security adviser, who has access to the country’s most highly classified intelligence.
As a best-case, that’s still pretty bad. But if it were somehow true, it would raise the question of why McGahn didn’t let the president know about Flynn’s vulnerability immediately, as soon as he learned of it—or, if he did, why Trump sat on his hands for weeks. If McGahn had relayed to Trump that Flynn had lied to him, placing national security at risk and exposing the administration to humiliation, you’d expect Trump to have fired Flynn in January. In the immediate term, that is why the controversy is now likely to accrete to McGahn.
The likelier story—though Spicer denied it during Tuesday’s White House press briefing—is that Flynn was doing what Trump told him to do. Trump even reveled in the fact that the backchannel diplomacy had been successful.
But that would also mean he knew the version of events Pence and Spicer had relayed to the press was false.
So let’s assume Flynn just jumped on a grenade for his boss. Trump may have believed Moscow would never rat Flynn out, and may still believe Flynn will never claim—or prove—he was just following orders. But the truth is, Trump can’t be sure his own involvement won’t be exposed. And that compromises him, as well. It’s not just that Pence, Flynn, and Spicer should feel as if Trump hung them out to dry—it’s that he did so in a way that gives powerful people, perhaps even Russian intelligence officials, leverage over his administration.
The story is explosive, in other words, even when it’s walled off from other things we know: That Flynn and Kislyak were reportedly in contact, not just during the transition, but before the election. That other members of the Trump team and their Russian contacts are reportedly under federal investigation, stemming from a broader investigation into Russian subversion. That those inquiries are apparently significant enough that FBI director James Comey was initially reluctant to alert the White House to Flynn’s susceptibility to blackmail out of fear it would undermine the bureau’s work. That the intelligence community has corroborated certain non-sexual claims in the Trump-opposition dossier.
Flynn’s out now, and if he has information that’s pertinent to Comey’s investigation, he’s a major loose end—especially if he has his own legal trouble. But Republicans on Capitol Hill and the White House are pretending Flynn’s resignation brings the story to an end.
It’s hard to focus on regressive tax cuts if the president of your party is at the center of a major national security scandal. Republicans might be able to slow down the unraveling with this kind of willful blindness to the significance of what just happened. But they probably can’t stop it altogether. They will be lucky if this ends with senior members of Trump’s White House and doesn’t ultimately ensnare Trump himself.