Taking Stock, Pt. 1: The Race for Russia

Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy stand as President Donald Trump shakes hands with FBI Director James Comey during a reception for inaugural law enforcement officers and firs... Vice President Mike Pence, left, and Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy stand as President Donald Trump shakes hands with FBI Director James Comey during a reception for inaugural law enforcement officers and first responders in the Blue Room of the White House, Sunday, Jan. 22, 2017 in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

As we sift through the details of the Flynn court documents we inevitably see them through a distorted prism because we know 2017 as it happened rather than as the Trump team intended it to unfold. This is particularly important for the roughly three months between candidate Trump’s election victory on November 8th, 2016 and Mike Flynn’s ouster on February 13th, 2017.

We see Flynn’s covert communications with Ambassador Kislyak; we see the escalation of the FBI’s scrutiny of Flynn; we know other top Trump officials, like Jared Kushner, were meeting with Kislyak and others and also possibly trying to execute financial transactions with Russian government officials. It’s all sort of a jumble. But the logic of events only really comes into focus when we realize that there was a sort of race taking place between the Trump team’s effort to arrange a rapid rapprochement with Russia in the first weeks of January and February and a mix of the intelligence community, the national security apparatus and the press piecing together what had happened during the 2016 election. Imagine it as a starting pistol firing off on the morning of November 9th, with both teams racing to get more of their critical work done by the end of January.

Since this rapid settling of accounts with Russia is no longer the focus or at least at the forefront of coverage, we need to refresh our memories of exactly what was intended. The Trump transition planned to move rapidly in its first days and weeks in office to engineer a dramatic reshuffling of policy toward Russia, in essence a grand bargain which would start with lifting the December 2016 sanctions as well as those imposed in March 2014 for the annexation of Crimea. But it wouldn’t end there. It was also to include a basic reorientation of policy in the Middle East (a policy of close collaboration with Russia in Syria and Iraq/ISIS) and at least some shift in US policy toward Europe and the EU.

As Mike Isikoff reported back in June, pretty much from day one in office, Trump administration officials began tasking State Department officials with drawing up plans for the kind of rapprochement I described above. This touched off a panicked effort by career officials and Obama administration hold overs to slow down these efforts and warn key leaders on Capitol Hill of what was happening and what was being planned. But the preparation for this effort began immediately after the election, way back on November 9th.

By mid-December these two efforts – rapprochement and investigation – were already beginning to collide. Investigators were not only examining what happened in 2016, they were picking up signals of what was happening in real time during the transition itself. The Obama administration’s report on Russian interference, the sanctions imposed in response to it and Flynn’s efforts to forestall Russian retaliation were all in this mix. As investigators and the press were discovering, there were numerous Trump campaign contacts with Sergei Kislyak over the course of 2016. But Flynn’s calls with Kislyak were specifically aimed at ensuring what was planned for the first weeks in office wasn’t derailed. As we’ve all seen in the descriptions of the exchanges, Flynn’s message was this: hold tight and don’t escalate. We’ll make this right in only a few weeks. That was precisely what Russia did.

This is the email from incoming Deputy National Security Advisor KT McFarland.

I think people are over-interpreting the seemingly explosive point 3. But two overall points are clear. 1) The transition needed to make sure Obama did not create an escalation of tensions that made Trump’s rapprochement impossible. 2) More based on point two than on point three, it’s clear McFarland knew that Russia had in fact intervened in the election. Otherwise why anticipate a report that “catches Russians red handed”?

If the fullness of what happened during 2016 became known (even if it was only Russian actions on behalf of Trump and not Trump advisors conspiring with Russia) that would make the grand bargain impossible, as McFarland clearly understood. It had to become a fait accompli before the full story emerged. Indeed, if the Trump Team could get in place before most of the information was revealed it might never become known at all since they would take over the key agencies doing the investigating. The urgency of reaching out to Kislyak was to make sure a rapprochement was still possible by late January. Yet it was the fact that Flynn got caught doing so that became the central reason the Trump Team’s plans for January and February were eventually dashed.

Once again, to put ourselves back into the reality of the transition period, it’s important to remember how the Russia ‘issue’ was seen at the time. It was out there of course. But it was still largely seen as a fringe issue or at least a partisan one. Remember the now notorious October 31st New York Times article headlined “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. See No Clear Link to Russia.”

We know now that that was clearly not true – not true on the underlying substance and not true on what the FBI knew at the time. But the article had a major impact at the time and in the weeks after the election. The upshot was that the FBI had looked into all those seemingly weird connections and it was a dry hole. Late in 2016 the Obama administration released a further report detailing Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election. But it focused on Russian actions, not actions from the American direction.

The public story only began to change in a dramatic way in the second week of January. On January 10th, CNN reported on the existence of what we now know as the Steele Dossier and broke the news that intelligence officials had briefed President Obama and President-Elect Trump on its existence in early January. The real game changer, however, didn’t come until two days later on January 12th when the Post’s David Ignatius first reported that Flynn had phoned Kislyak on December 29th. These were the first confirmed reports of Trump contacts with Russian officials. That set off the escalating series of denials from the Trump transition and a series of leaks which impeached those denials. It was those calls which lead the FBI to interview Flynn on January 24th at the White House, Sally Yates warnings to the White House on January 26th and 27th, Yates seemingly related firing on January 31s and Flynn’s ouster on February 13th.

One basic question is, why did Flynn act so recklessly? As many have pointed out, Flynn was no naif, as many of the Trump players clearly were. He was literally a career intelligence officer, a spy. He had to know that the Russian Ambassador’s phone conversations were routinely surveilled. So why did he do it? One critical factor is simply Flynn’s recklessness and poor judgment – the same characterological factors that led him to ponder all the wild schemes he was plotting with the Turks in the second half of 2016. The second factor is that he simply had no choice. The rapprochement with Russia was the single and overriding Trump administration foreign policy goal. We’ll return to this point in another installment of this series because it’s a critical issue. From all evidence, nothing was more important. If a diplomatic crisis broke out between the two countries, the rapprochement would become impossible. He had to do it. But the last factor, which is admittedly speculative, is this: in Flynn’s mindset, with all he had to prove personally, with his professional background in intelligence work and the grandiose plans his team had, I don’t think he thought it would matter.

What I mean is this: he thought that in a few weeks he’d be the intelligence community and thus also running counter-intelligence. It wouldn’t matter. If it seemed wrong to the Obama people and the career officials in place, he’d be in charge and say it was right. Russia wouldn’t be an adversary anymore. It would be a partner in a new strategic alliance. It would be a new reality, a critical aspiration that is only clear if you put yourself back in those weeks of post victory grandiosity.

If that’s the case, then why did he lie? Why not just say, “Sure, I talked to Kislyak. It was the right thing to do. He needed to know these sanctions would only be in place for a few weeks.” This is the very good question a colleague of mine asked when I discussed my understanding of these events with him on Friday. Clearly the visit from the FBI suggested that it wasn’t playing out exactly as Flynn and his colleagues imagined. At some level I think Flynn thought that it soon wouldn’t matter. Whatever these Obama-era FBI handlers thought, this investigation would soon be overtaken by events. But in that interview, despite that confidence, he seemed to panic. The investigation was catching up with them and sooner than they would have liked or expected. Flynn of all the players involved knew that by the normal rules he and his colleagues had crossed a major red line.

There was another critical factor: these weren’t the smartest people. I don’t mean mainly or only that they’re dumb. They’re people who lacked judgment. Almost everyone who found their way into the Trump orbit got there because they weren’t wanted anywhere else and they made an early bet on Donald Trump, someone no one took seriously or expected to win. This is the recurrent story with Flynn, Manafort, Lewandowski and virtually everyone else involved in the effort.

Flynn also wasn’t waiting to see what happened. As I explained at the end of March, there is a good bit of circumstantial and some direct evidence that immediately after the inauguration, Flynn had his deputy at the NSC, Ezra Cohen-Watnick, begin surveilling the counter-intelligence investigation of which Flynn was a target. That ‘review’ continued after Flynn was ousted. Cohen-Watnick brought his findings to White House Counsel Don McGahn but was told to end his review. Rather than doing so, he brought his findings to Rep. Devin Nunes, Chairman of the House intelligence committee.

Notably, one of H.R. McMaster’s first decisions on taking over as National Security Advisor was to fire Cohen-Watnick. But he was prevented from doing so by Steven Bannon and Jared Kushner. He remained in his position until early August.

What matters for our purposes is that only days after the inauguration the two trains were colliding – the investigators and the press were catching up with the Trump team’s efforts and about to upend them. Two days after that, January 26th, Yates showed up at the White House telling the White House Counsel that Flynn was in legal jeopardy and a security risk from blackmail by Russia. We don’t know this for a fact but it seems highly likely that President Trump learned of this immediately. Yates returned the following day, the 27th. That afternoon President Trump asked FBI Director James Comey to join him for dinner at the White House and asked him to pledge his loyalty – a request to which Comey seemed to respond to with an awkward demurral. Days later Yates was fired, notionally for refusing to enforce the immigration ban but perhaps also for these visits.

Despite the claim that Flynn had gone rogue and that Vice President Pence was lied to, details that emerged in the Flynn plea documents make clear that Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak were widely discussed among President Trump’s top advisors. Pence almost certainly knew about them, though we as yet have no direct proof of this. Events were moving rapidly. A string of denials about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak were hit with a rush of leaks that refuted each in turn. By February 13th Flynn was out. The next day President Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation into his activities. Comey politely refused. Events were moving quickly and badly.

Various reports, including Isikoff’s, tells us that the staff planning for a rapprochement which was kicked off in the administration’s first days continued. Indeed, in the months since we’ve seen it pop up here and there. There have been repeated hints of discussions to return the diplomatic compounds seized by the Obama administration in late December. In his May trip to Europe Trump had to be coaxed and prodded to commit to the defense of NATO allies. We saw it in Trump’s bizarre and semi-secret Oval Office meeting with Kislyak and Lavrov just after firing Comey. Still, it seems clear that by mid-February, with Flynn fired and the Russia scandal dominating the headlines, any hope of an immediate and thorough-going reset in relations with Russia were abandoned as unrealistic. While the desire is clearly still there, it has been the drama of the unfolding investigation, rather than a grand partnership with Russia that has dominated the news and the administration ever since.

Latest Editors' Blog
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: