Americas: United States
Special Report: Burgeoning scandal over Trump administration’s Russian contacts
Late on Feb. 13, 2017, Michael Flynn — national security adviser to President Trump — resigned from office. At issue were reports that he misled White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
Of concern was the matter of whether or not Russian sanctions were discussed during a conversation with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 -- prior to Donald Trump taking office as president in early 2017. Flynn had earlier denied that such issues were discussed but he was now acknowledging that the nature of the Kislyak conversation conveyed to the White House was “incomplete.”
Earlier on the same day of Flynn’s resignation, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said that the national security adviser had the full confidence of the president. Then, only hours later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the president was “evaluating the situation.” Later that night, Flynn was reported to be on his way out. Indeed, the resignation occurred so quickly that members of the National Security Council staff apparently heard about Flynn’s exit via the news. The official stance from the White House was that the Flynn situation had become a distraction to the Trump administration.
The scenario, though, was likely more complicated as news reports had emerged covering the fact that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn was not being completely transparent about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. The Justice Department also warned that Flynn would be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians due to his multiple conversations with Kislyak. A further issue was the fact that such contacts, if conclusively verified, would be in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
It should be noted that Flynn’s contact with Russia was already an issue of concern, particularly since revelations emerged that he had at least five conversations with a Russian envoy. Concerns over that matter had already led to a Senate inquiry. Now, however, his failure to be forthright with Vice President Pence regarding those conversations were yielding real consequences.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he had many calls with foreign officials and that contributed to the problematic account of his conversation with the Russian ambassador. He said, “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. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.” Flynn continued, “I am tendering my resignation, honored to have served our nation and the American people in such a distinguished way.”
It should be noted that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks ago that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail due to his multiple conversations with Kislyak. A further issue was the fact that such contacts, if conclusively verified, would be in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
Of significance — and, indeed concern — was the notion of a representative of Trump discussing a potential deal to reverse the sanctions put into place by the serving President Barack Obama. Those sanctions had been implemented in response to United States’ intelligence findings that the Russian government, under the direction of President Vladimir Putin, had interfered with the 2016 election in order to advance Donald Trump’s chances against Hillary Clinton.
In addition to the violation of protocol, Flynn’s attempt to cover up the sanctions portion of his conversation with the Russians would present a potential blackmail risk. As noted above, it was that particular angle that spurred the Justice Department to issue its alert.
A further wrinkle for Flynn was the fact that the Army was looking into whether or not he received payments from the Russian government during a visit to Moscow in 2015. That trip involved Flynn’s attendance at an anniversary dinner for the media outlet, Russia Today, which has been generally understood as a Kremlin propaganda outfit. During that dinner, Flynn was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
There were suggestions that Flynn was paid to attend this event. Should that prove to be the case, Flynn would be in violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving compensation from a foreign government without prior consent from Congress.
The White House released a statement noting that in the interim, Gen. Joseph K. Kellogg Jr. would function as the acting national security adviser. Soon thereafter, Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of United States Central Command was offered the position on a permanent basis, but ultimately declined to serve. Days later, Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond McMaster was named to be the new national security adviser.
It was to be seen how McMaster would work with Trump on national security given to his hardline view of Russia as a security threat to the United states. To date, Trump has telegraphed that he does not view Russia in this same light, and instead as a potential global security partner.
The White House was very likely hoping that the resignation of Flynn would bring an end to that particular scandal. However, such a tidy conclusion was unlikely given the eagerness of Democrats to go after the Trump administration.
To this end, the leading Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee,Representative Adam B. Schiff said the although Flynn’s resignation was inevitable, it was not the end of the road. He declared, “General Flynn’s decision to step down as national security adviser was all but ordained the day he misled the country about his secret talks with the Russian ambassador” and then warned that further inquiry would be in the offing. Meanwhile, Representative John Conyers Jr. and Representative Elijah E. Cummings — both Democrats — demanded a briefing by the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation over what they characterized as the “alarming new disclosures” of Flynn being a blackmail risk. “ Conyers and Cummings further alluded to other questionable Russian connections emanating from within the White House as they added, “We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security.”
That reference to other inhabitants of the White House being national security risks by Conyers and Cummings may have been an intimation of United States intelligence findings that Russia also possessed blackmail-quality information about President Trump.
A month earlier in January 2017, CNN reported that classified documents presented to both then-President Barack Obama and Donald Trump included allegations that Russian operatives had compromising personal and financial information about the president-elect. The report also included an explosive suggestion of an exchange of information during the campaign between Trump surrogates and intermediaries for the Russian government.
These allegations outlined in the intelligence report given to Obama and Trump were derived partially — but not completely — from memos of a former credible British intelligence operative. However, there were indications that there were other sources of the “kompromat” leak.
It was unknown if the salacious details of the “kompromat” leak constituted the reference point for then-Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid, who dispatched a letter to Director James Comes of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in October 2016 that read as follows: "It has become clear that you possess explosive information about close ties and coordination between Donald Trump, his top advisors, and the Russian government -- a foreign interest openly hostile to the United States." Reid urged Comey to release this information, which the FBI director clearly opted not to do.
For his part, Trump dismissed the claims that Russia had compromising information about him. Via the social media outlet, Twitter, he declared, "FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT."
But Trump would have a difficult time maintaining the claim that the allegations outlined by CNN were fake once the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), James Clapper, acknowledged it on the record on Jan. 11, 2017. The outgoing DNI head released a statement that read: "This evening, I had the opportunity to speak with President-elect Donald Trump to discuss recent media reports about our briefing last Friday. I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security." In so doing, Clapper was essentially confirming that the “kompromat” information did exist and had circulated through the government, the intelligence agencies, and the media.
Meanwhile Trump was embroiled in a public fight with the head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Director John Brennan. The conflict was sparked when Trump accused Brennan of leaking the “kompromat” information, detailing tawdry sexual activities in Moscow, to the public. For his part, Brennan not only dismissed those charges. The reality of the situation was that the Flynn situation was now sparking new questions about the “kompromat” information and the potential blackmail risk posed by the president himself.
Then, at the start of 2017, a declassified report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence concluded that Russia undertook an effort sought to help elect Donald Trump by undermining the credibility of Hillary Clinton.
Key points of that report were as follows:
"Russian efforts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election represent the most recent expression of Moscow's longstanding desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order, but these activities demonstrated a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations."
"We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.”
"We further assess Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
"We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
Read the full report here: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/ICA_2017_01.pdf
For his part, Trump has dismissed such suggestions, at one point suggesting a technologically savvy teenager may have been responsible for cybersecurity violations, or even China, which was blamed for previous hacking operations. But throughout, Trump has been reluctant to place the blame on Russia, and instead referred to the entire line of inquiry as “a political witch hunt.’
Following a briefing from United States intelligence, Trump continued to downplay the role of Russian actors in his election, declaring instead: "There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election, including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
But with questions continuing to arise about the Trump circle’s connections to Russia, it was unlikely that questions over Russian interference into United States affairs would dissipate anytime soon. Indeed, the unfolding drama regarding Flynn’s Russian ties in the earlier part of February 2017 suggested that the issue of United States interests and the country’s relationship with Russia would be at the forefront of the political landscape.
In a bombshell development during the third week of February 2017, it was reported by the media that Trump knew for weeks that Flynn was being misleading over his Russian contacts, but yet refused to cut him loose. In fact, it was only when Flynn’s irregular communications with Russia over sanctions was leaked to the press that the president was moved to act. As noted by Congressman Schiff in an interview with MSNBC News, “The reason they lost faith or trust in General Flynn only last night when they knew for weeks that he had been lying was that it became public.”
Meanwhile, Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer demanded an investigation into potential criminal violations associated with the resignation of Flynn. However, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Paul Ryan, has shown little eagerness to inquire into the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s Russian communications. The lack of bipartisan concurrence on the issue of investigations opened the door for accusations of a partisan cover-up benefiting the Trump administration in its very early days.
Such sentiment was not likely to be helped by the news that intercepted calls and telephone records indicated that members of the Trump presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. The timing of these contacts was alarming as they occurred just as U.S. law enforcement and intelligence agencies were finding evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election. This discovery triggered an investigation into whether the Trump campaign was colluding with Russia in a well known hacking operation of the Democratic National Committee. While there was no immediate evidence to that end, the frequency of the contact was notable.
Note that these intercepted communications are to be distinguished from wiretapped conversations Flynn as Kislyak, as discussed above. They involved several other of Trump’s associates including Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman for several months in 2016 who also worked as a consultant to the former pro-Russian leader of Ukraine, Victor Yanukovych, and another policy consultant to trump with Russian ties, Carter Page.
-- Feb. 22, 2017
Written by Denise Youngblood Coleman, Ph.D.
President and Editor in Chief