The Questionable Account of What Michael Flynn Told the White House
The White House would like you to know that Michael Flynn's sin was lying. Flynn resigned late last night as President Donald Trump's national-security adviser, after twenty-four days on the job.
While waiting last night for the resignation announcement to become public, a senior White House official insisted to me that Trump's loss of confidence in Flynn was the result of a fact-finding exercise by Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff. According to the senior official, Priebus's efforts began after January 12th, when the Washington Post's David Ignatius first reported that Flynn may have talked to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador, about sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration.
"Reince has been leading this evaluation," the official said. "He's been talking to the Vice-President, looking back on these reports, talking to Flynn exhaustively." In this account, Flynn was something of a rogue operative, duping everyone in the White House about his contact with Russian officials. In particular, Flynn was said to have misled them about his conversations with Kislyak on December 29th, in the hours after Barack Obama announced sanctions against Russia in retaliation for its interference in the 2016 Presidential election.
"Flynn kept saying, 'This isn't true, I never did this,' " the senior White House official said. "Reince kept coming at him."
According to this account, Priebus, a former litigator, eventually got Flynn to crack. "He said, 'Look, this is what this person says. Does this date ring a bell?' Finally Flynn's like, 'I've got to be honest with you, maybe it did happen. I don't recall that, but I can't be one hundred per cent certain.' That's when I think a lot of this evolved."
Last Thursday, the Post reported that, according to nine current and former Administration officials, "Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia" with Kislyak, "contrary to public assertions by Trump officials." Flynn had denied the Post's account in an interview with the paper on Wednesday, but then retreated on Thursday, before the story was published, telling the Post, through a spokesperson, that "while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up."
As the story festered, Flynn spent the weekend with Trump in Florida, staffing the President's getaway with the Japanese Prime Minister at Mar-a-Lago. On Monday, the Post reported that in late January, the former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates had told Trump's White House counsel Donald McGahn that transcripts of Flynn's calls clearly showed he was lying about his contacts with Kislyak.
That story finally seized Trump's attention. "This has been something the President's been monitoring internally for a while," the senior White House official said. "Today, in between meetings, he started to ask questions about who knew what, what do we think about this report, and continued to flesh it out."
In his resignation letter, Flynn echoed this account, claiming that he had misinformed the White House in the rush of events during the transition. "Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador," he wrote.
To understand why this account is so self-serving and dubious, you have to review the chronology of events surrounding this unusual episode.
Almost immediately after Obama made his sanctions announcement, on December 29th, expelling thirty-five Russian diplomats and closing down two Russian compounds, the Russian government made clear that Putin would retaliate in kind.
"We, of course, cannot leave unanswered the insults of the kind, reciprocity is the law of diplomacy and foreign relations," Sergey Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, said during televised remarks in Russia. "Thus, the Russian Foreign Ministry and officials of other authorities have suggested the Russian President to announce thirty-one personnel of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and four diplomats from the Consulate General in St. Petersburg persona non grata." Lavrov also said that he had recommended the closure of two U.S. facilities used by American diplomats.
Lavrov's spokesman said, "Tomorrow there will be official statements, countermeasures."
Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary to Vladimir Putin, affirmed that a reciprocal response would be forthcoming. "There is no doubt that Russia's adequate and mirror response will make Washington officials feel very uncomfortable, as well," he said. The Russian Embassy's official account tweeted that Obama's sanctions "are aimed directly at undermining bilateral relations," and "they won't be left unanswered."
And then: nothing.
On Friday, December 30th, early in the morning in the United States (the afternoon in Moscow), an official statement from Putin was posted on the Kremlin's Web site. "Although we have the right to retaliate, we will not resort to irresponsible 'kitchen' diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration," the statement said. "We will not create any problems for US diplomats. We will not expel anyone."
A few hours later, Trump celebrated the decision. "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!" he tweeted.
What happened between Obama's statement on Thursday and Putin's statement on Friday to change the Russian government's response? This is the period when Flynn and the Russian Ambassador exchanged a flurry of communications, including, we now know with certainty, discussions about the Obama Administration's sanctions. Before the Post confirmed with nine officials that Flynn had discussed sanctions on those calls, both Vice-President Mike Pence and Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, denied that Flynn had. The White House would like this to be a story about Flynn lying to them.
But now Flynn is gone, and there are some bigger unresolved questions. Did Trump instruct Flynn to discuss a potential easing of sanctions with Russia? Did Flynn update Trump on his calls with the Russian Ambassador? Did Trump know that Flynn lied to Pence about those contacts? What did the White House counsel do with the information that he received from Yates about Flynn being vulnerable to blackmail?
"It wasn't one report," the senior White House official told me about the series of news articles that made Trump finally focus on Flynn yesterday. "It was a drip, drip, drip."
Both Congress and the F.B.I. are looking into Flynn's links to Russia. There are several former Obama officials who saw transcripts of his calls with the Russian Ambassador. The dripping has only just begun.