There has been a lot of media attention lately on Michael Flynn and his telephone conversations with Sergey Kislyak where Flynn apparently discussed with the Russian Ambassador the sanctions which President Obama imposed on Russia on the day they were imposed. Most of the attention has been focused on Flynn’s initial adamant denials that sanctions discussion took place in light of the subsequent revelations that intelligence intercepts prove otherwise. Also at issue is the fact that Flynn not only lied to the American people, he also lied to other administration officials including Vice President Pence who publicly defended him.
All of this is serious business which warrants a bi-partisan Congressional investigation, but no one seems to be asking the most important question: At the time that Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador, was Flynn doing the bidding of Donald Trump or was he acting on his own?
As you will recall, immediately after President Obama announced new sanctions on Russia for their tampering with our election system, Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, announced that Russia would be retaliating in kind and would expel 35 US diplomats. This was to be expected. The American sanctions included expelling 35 Russian intelligence officers operating in the US as part of the Russian diplomatic mission. Every other time either Russia or the US expelled spies, the other country retaliated by doing the same; tit for tat so to speak.
However, the next day it was announced that Putin would not retaliate, at least not right away. Instead the Russian news agency, RIA, quoted Putin as saying that after Trump took office he would consider the actions of Trump administration when deciding on future course of Russia-U.S. relations. What event took place between the Russian Foreign Minister’s warning of imminent retaliation and Putin’s wait and see decision? Why that was the conversation which Flynn had with the Russian ambassador. One can only assume that Flynn conveyed assurances that the sanctions would be lifted once Trump took office. But again, did Flynn convey those assurances on his own, are was he following Trump’s instructions? Either answer has very serious implications.
The safest bet was the Michael Flynn was providing assurances that the sanctions would be lifted on instructions of his boss, Donald Trump. In that case, Trump, who was not yet in office, was undermining the foreign policy of the United States in favor of a foreign power which has proven itself to be an enemy of US interests and the safety and security of some of our closest allies. It would also be apparent that Trump was pursuing this course of action without the knowledge of some of his closest staff members, including his Vice President. In addition, it calls into question just how long this collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian principles has been going on with the full knowledge and explicit consent of Trump himself.
There are many indications and leaks from the US intelligence community that there was communications between Russians close to Putin and the Trump campaign staff during the entire Presidential campaign. These include strong evidence of a server in Trump Towers which was found to be communicating voice messages with the servers of Russian bank officials with close ties to Putin. If evidence eventually comes out which substantiates collusion on the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee between the Russians and Trump staff members, numerous laws have been broken. If it can be proven that Trump knew and approved of that collusion, he would surely be impeached.
On the other hand, if Flynn was operating on his own without Trumps knowledge and consent, that would also have very serious implications. In that case we would have the man appointed as the National Security Advisor either reassuring the Kremlin about the sanctions in the future President’s name without his knowledge or consent or promising that he, Flynn, would personally see to it that the matter would be settled in a manner agreeable to Putin. Either would seriously call into question Michael Flynn’s loyalties. We simply cannot have a man with questionable loyalties making private deals with the Russians in the very sensitive position of National Security Advisor.
The first indication of whether Trump was involved in planning Flynn’s conversations with the Russians will be how Trump decides to handle the matter of Flynn’s future within the administration. Trump knows that the nature of the of the conversations will sooner or later become available to the public and if Flynn was making promises in Trump’s name, that will eventually be revealed. That is sure to play a pivotal role in Trump’s decision.
Already Flynn is damaged goods. There has to be ill will towards Flynn for lying to other members of the administration. If he was indeed making promises to the Russians in Trump’s name without Trump’s advice and consent, That’s a no brainer. Regardless of the fact that Trump will hate admitting he made a mistake appointing Flynn, he will have to replace him. As an excuse Trump can point to the fact that a man that he trusted was not loyal to him.
On the other hand, if Trump instructed Flynn to reassure the Putin about the sanctions through the Russian ambassador (again the most likely possibility), then Trump’s decision will be difficult at best. Trump is known for being extremely loyal to those who have shown loyalty to him. If Trump was behind Flynn’s conversation with the Russian ambassador, how does he fire Flynn for carrying out his orders and how does Flynn react to his public condemnation when he knows he was only doing Trumps bidding?
A lot will depend on what Trump believes is the exact nature of the conversations captured on tape. If Flynn indeed made reassurances in Trump’s name and Trump does not fire him, it will be very problematic if the tapes eventually reveal that to be the case. At that point is will become clear that Trump was behind the conversations with the Russians.
So if Trump was involved, here are some possibilities:
1) Flynn might be convinced to “take one for the team” and resign stating that the breaches of trusts he created by not being truthful to the VP and other members of the administration make it impossible to continue in his position.
2) Trump, being Trump, might decide that his position allows him to keep Flynn on despite what anyone thinks because is believes that he is fundamentally above the law and that he will be able to effectively deal with any fall out that might occur later. Trump will also probably be ready to use the “fake news” gambit and claim that the tapes are not incriminating in order to reassure his most ardent supporters.
3) And don’t rule this option out, Trump might simply make it clear that, yes, he instructed Michael Flynn to reassure the Russians about the sanctions in the interest of promoting better relations with Putin. He would be effectively daring everyone to do anything about it. He could claim again that story about the Russians hacking into the DNC is “fake news” and so no new sanctions were appropriate. Technically, dealing with the Russians before he was President would be a violation of the Logan Act, but that law has never effectively been enforced, despite obvious violations by other administrations “in waiting”. The Republican Congress would not dare cross Trump under such flimsy circumstances.
It will be very interesting to see how all of this shakes out. However, regardless the outcome, rest assured that there is no way that Trump will come out of this situation unscathed.
Edit: In full disclosure, after I wrote this piece, but before I polished and published it, this evening driving home from a meeting I was listening to CNN on Sirius Radio and heard Anderson Cooper discussing this situation with Fareed Zakaria and David Gergen. They asked the question, “what did Trump know, and when did he know it” and also briefly questioned whether Trump had instructed Flynn to discuss the sanctions with the Russians. I have to admit that I was thinking at the time, “Darn, they are stealing my thunder”, because I had not yet published this article. However, they went in nowhere near the depth that I have here.