If you accept the public storyline, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s job now hangs in the balance because a) he discussed sanctions against Russia with Russian Ambassador Kislyak on the day President Obama imposed them (Dec 29th) and b) because he lied to Vice President Pence and possibly also Chief Of Staff Priebus about the topics discussed on those December 29th calls. Pence later put his own credibility on the line when he passed on Flynn’s false assurances. But there are some pretty big problems with this account of events – and they all tie to whether President Trump knew about the Flynn/Russia back channel all along.
First, let’s refresh our minds on some key points of the timeline.
The current drama goes back to Thursday evening, February 9th, when the Post and the Times both published articles confirming that Flynn had discussed sanctions with Kislyak despite his denials.
But remember, this information had actually been known for a month. Back on January 13th, the Associated Press reported the phone calls in question. Reuters had additional details. The first report of the calls came a day earlier on January 12th in a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. What was not confirmed in these articles was whether Flynn and Kislyak discussed. But it always begged credulity to believe that they would not have been discussed on a day when the US was in the midst of a major retaliation against the Russian government.
But here’s the thing. President Trump is in a unique position. He doesn’t have to guess or cultivate intelligence sources. The FBI and the CIA work for him. What we learned on Thursday night was that there are transcripts of at least one of these conversations and they directly contradict Flynn’s denials. He did discuss the sanctions. This information has been available to President Trump since he became President on the 21st. He could have gotten it from FBI Director Comey or possibly from CIA Director Pompeo after he was confirmed on the 23rd. I should note I’m not sure whether these transcripts were only with the FBI or also with the CIA. There are rules about which agencies can scrutinize intelligence collected in the US or on US citizens. But I’m not certain just how they apply in this, shall we say, rather unique situation. In any case, this information was available to President Trump.
Why didn’t he get it? Why wasn’t he told?
Now, one might speculate that Flynn told Trump one thing, Trump believed him and Flynn is Trump’s conduit to most national security related information. So perhaps Trump didn’t know who to ask or didn’t think there was any need to ask. This is conceivable. Maybe. But the stream of leaks is people in law enforcement and the intelligence worlds trying to get this information out. I don’t think it would have been hard for President Trump to find this stuff out.
But there’s a much simpler explanation to all of this – one that does a much better job making sense of the Transition’s and then the White House’s weird indifference to all these leaks: President Trump knew that Flynn was in touch with the Russian Ambassador, not just about the calls on December 29th but the ones before the election too. Remember that when President Putin said he would not retaliate for the sanctions, the day after Obama imposed them, Trump went on Twitter and said how he’d always known Putin was smart.
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
Now that we know that Trump’s top foreign policy advisor was on the phone with the Russian Ambassador the day before suggesting that Russia not overact but wait for Trump to be sworn in, does this read like someone who was involved in sending that message? I would say so.
Is that a certainty? Of course not. But let’s look at the big picture.
Flynn has been a close advisor to Trump since the spring of 2016. Trump has consistently championed closer relations with Russia through the campaign. The subject of Russia came up repeatedly in the final months of the campaign as it became increasingly clear that Russia was involved in the hacking campaign against the Democrats. Does it seem likely that Flynn kept his communications with the Russian Ambassador secret from Trump this whole time? To me, it seems highly unlikely.
Again, we have no proof of this. But in all the conversations about Flynn’s fate I see very little discussion about whether he did what he did at the President’s behest and with his knowledge. That seems odd since it seems like by far the most likely explanation.
Consider another part of this. We’ve known about these calls for a month. There has been no word from the President about whether he knew about the Flynn/Russia channel. There’s been no word from the President since February 9th when we had the first definitive reports that Flynn discussed sanctions with Ambassador Kislyak on the day President Obama imposed them.
The Flynn drama is interesting. But whether he lied to Vice President Pence is maybe the 20th most consequential part of this story. What did Flynn do? What did he tell Trump? What did Trump do? This are very pressing questions.