We have a small landslide of new news this morning tied to the growing tangle of Trump administration scandals. Let me try to piece them together and sort the important from the less important. (Everything is relative when we’re moving at this velocity.)
Let’s go through the headlines. I’m choosing just three – there are a handful of others that on any other day would be siren-blaring news.
Reuters says that Mike Flynn and other Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian government officials at least 18 times between April and November of last year.
McClatchy reports that shortly before President Trump’s inauguration, Mike Flynn effectively killed a military operation against ISIS that would have used Kurdish paramilitaries. The plan was later revived after Flynn’s ouster. But his decision delayed it for months. Any US operations with the Kurds would be firmly against the wishes of Turkey. This was while Flynn was working on behalf of the Republic of Turkey as an unregistered foreign agent.
The Times reports that on January 4th, Flynn notified Trump Transition lawyer and now White House Counsel Donald McGahn that he was being investigated for his undeclared lobbying work on behalf of Turkey.
For the moment I would say that the latter two reports are the most serious, though the first (Reuters on the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia) may be part of what ends up being the bigger story.
Let’s deal first with killing the anti-ISIS operation with Kurdish forces. This is incredibly serious. We’ve known that Flynn was taking hundreds of thousands of dollars during the campaign to lobby on behalf of Turkey. But Turkey is a longtime US ally and member of NATO. While that’s obviously bad, it wasn’t clear what the concrete negative or illicit effect was. While Turkey’s reputation in the US has – rightly – fallen dramatically in the last few years, it is still a US treaty ally. Here though Flynn’s Turkish lobbying seems arguably to have had a very, very concrete effect, one it could only have had if President Trump had put him in a position of unique power after knowing he was being investigated over that Turkish money.
It’s beyond the scope of this post to weigh the relative merits of this particular anti-ISIS plan. But it seems like it was the consensus position within the US national security bureaucracy to go ahead with it. Flynn vetoed it. Flynn’s decision clearly mimicked the Turkish position (Turkey has a bloody and complicated history with the Kurdish people – those who live in Turkey and those who don’t). Flynn was being paid huge sums of money to advance their interests. Whether Flynn would have made the same call on the merits if he hadn’t gotten a half million dollars to work for Turkey is rendered moot by the fact that he did.
Every decision in the Syria/ISIS theater has lives attached to it. The combination of the money, the non-disclosure and the veto is grave beyond almost anything we’ve seen so clearly documented in the entirety of Trump-related scandals to date. This is exactly why FARA registration – so often honored in the breach or treated as a technicality – turns out to be incredibly important.
This is a big, big deal. And it doesn’t just touch Flynn.
If I’m understanding the timeline correctly, Flynn did this when the Trump team already knew he was a paid agent working on behalf of Turkey, indeed, already knew the DOJ was investigating him for that undisclosed payment. You can likely make determinations about people who lived or died because of this decision. It doesn’t get more serious because it’s not just about abstract decision-making but life and death when illegal money is involved and the cash is arguably driving the decisions.
You can already see where the Times story about Flynn notifying McGahn and the McClatchy story fit together. There’s another way too. Vice President Mike Pence is often portrayed as Trump’s squeaky clean, perhaps goofy second, ready to take over if the avalanche of scandal overwhelms Trump. As I noted earlier this week, this is far from the case. Pence has managed to get implicated in most if not all of the big scandals – that just hasn’t gotten a lot of attention yet.
In this case, Pence was saying in March that he was only just learning about Flynn’s work for Turkey. But we now learn that Flynn had notified McGahn he was being investigated by the DOJ for that work at the beginning of January.
Well, that’s McGahn, not Pence.
But remember, Pence ran the Transition!
Maybe for some reason McGahn somehow didn’t tell Pence. But that’s very, very hard to figure since Flynn was in line for one of the most consequential positions in any presidency and McGahn had just been notified of a fact that under most circumstances would be disqualifying. If Pence lied about this part of the Flynn saga, the idea that he innocently passed on Flynn’s lies about the Kislyak conversation instantly looks much less credible. And that’s not all. Earlier this week we learned that the day after Flynn was finally fired in February, President Trump took FBI Director James Comey aside and asked him to end the Flynn investigation.
What it all amounts to is that the Flynn investigation (just the part tied to Turkey) just got much, much more serious, and the President and Vice President are both implicated in those bad acts, either in advance or after the fact. Likely both.
That’s just the Turkey part of the story. Russia is a whole other thing and likely the bigger deal over time.