Here’s why Donald Trump is flailing — and the story behind the story of Mike Flynn’s fall
President Trump’s chief National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has resigned after his pre-inauguration discussions with a Russian diplomat came to the attention of the National Security Agency and federal investigators. When details of the discussions were leaked to the Washington Post Monday, Flynn was gone within hours.
“Upheaval is now standard operating procedure inside the White House,” the Post observed.
“The chaos and competing factions that were a Trump trademark in business and campaigning now are starting to define his presidency,” said the Post. Breitbart News agrees that the flood of leaks “will itself become an enduring narrative about the Trump White House if it doesn’t bring the leaks under control.”
The increasingly dysfunctional Trump administration is a cockpit of clashing factions, large and small, presided over by a chief executive who believes his own lies, lacks interest in the daily demands of the job and is incapable of planning ahead. For national security policymakers such as Colin Kahl, former adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, the increasing power of senior White House adviser Steve Bannon is “dangerous.”
The Story Behind the Story
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he had given “incomplete information” to Vice President Mike Pence about the discussions. Pence had told a TV interviewer that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with the Russians. The leakers of the story emphasized that Flynn had “made himself vulnerable to blackmail” by the Russians.
That is hardly the whole story, but it is accurate enough for the quiet men and women who lead the two ongoing investigations of the Trump administration. One of them is Sally Yates, the acting attorney general fired by President Trump for objecting to his travel ban. According to the Post, it was Yates who had warned the Trump White House that Flynn’s talks might be a violation of the law.
The two investigations are separate but related.
According to credible news reports, the FBI has been investigating Russian psychological and propaganda operations targeting both the Democratic and Republican parties during the 2016 campaign. The NSA investigation apparently focused on Flynn.
In any case, the headlines and the presidential entourage are being driven by what these investigations uncover.
NSA Bugged Flynn’s Call
The proximate cause of Flynn’s defenestration was carelessness, according to news reports. The former general, known for his hostility to Islam, was careless in speaking on a tapped telephone line to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on December 30.
The Obama administration had just announced sanctions on Russia in response to Russian psychological warfare operations targeting U.S. election operatives in both parties. The Russians were expected to retaliate. To the surprise of U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced December 30 that there would be no response, winning the Russian leader a laudatory tweet from Donald Trump.
Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors. Thanks to NSA surveillance, Obama administration officials could listen to Flynn’s chat with Putin’s man.
Someone leaked the story of Flynn’s call to David Ignatius of the Washington Post. Pence had to deny on TV.
The “blackmail” narrative of the Post and other major news organizations probably reflects a bureaucratic consensus of the FBI and other federal investigators that Flynn should have known the call was tapped and that he was making U.S. policy with a foreign official before Trump had even taken the oath of office.
As for Breitbart’s hopes for a more disciplined White House, there’s little chance of that. Trump and his team are not disciplined or experienced enough to run a leak-proof White House in the manner of Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
Clash of Factions
In the larger political context, what we are seeing is the clash of Washington factions. Trump is an incipient tyrant, as Yale historian Tim Snyder has pointed out. But Washington’s factions will not surrender their powers without a struggle. The factions are based in the Executive Branch agencies and are led by senior officials and the bureaucratic cadres that support them.
These factions all have identifiable political agendas and varying degrees of sympathy with Trump. The Justice Department, FBI, CIA and National Security Agency also have their own institutional agendas independent of Trump. The leak of closely held information to embarrass or destroy rivals is a time-tested weapon in the Washington struggle for power.
In the White House, a much smaller but still powerful faction around Steve Bannon is consolidating power and persisting with Trump’s campaign promises: barring refugees from Muslim countries, stepping up deportations of undocumented residents and dismantling the NATO alliance.
The Bannonization of national security policy continues, while the president tweets about “Saturday Night Live” and defends the Trump family brand.
Why Flynn Was Forced Out
Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador were perhaps defensible. Mike McFaul, Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow, said he had pre-inauguration contacts with Russian officials, adding that he didn’t make any deals. Making independent deals with foreign officials is barred by a law called the Logan Act, though no one has ever been prosecuted for violating it.
The national security factions felt free to monitor Flynn’s phone calls because he was not competent to do the job of the national security adviser. The most successful National Security Advisers forge a consensus for the president from the disparate positions of the secretaries of State, Defense and Homeland Security. Flynn was more interested in striking poses, such as putting Iran “on notice,” an amateurish and empty stunt that succeeded only in persuading the Iranian leaders that the American president is an “inexperienced” and dangerous buffoon who is in over his head.
Meanwhile, the business of putting together high-quality intelligence so that the president can make informed decisions—about China’s military, the war in Yemen, relations with Mexico—is grinding to a halt. Briefing papers that ran 3-6 pages for President Obama have been scaled back to one page—and must include maps, according to one new report.
The winner, for now, is White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who was depicted by “Saturday Night Live” as the Grim Reaper manipulating a childish president.
Bannon’s next victim is likely to be White House chief-of-staff Reince Priebus. Last week, Bannon said of Priebus, “There’s no daylight between us.” In Washington, those are usually the last words a political innocent hears before a long knife is inserted into his or her back.
Priebus served as Trump’s tenuous link to the Republican power brokers who hoped, in vain, that he might establish a semblance of a normal White House for a disinterested president, like James Baker did for Ronald Reagan. Fat chance. Trump thinks Priebus is a loser and he is expected to be the next to go in what inside-the-Beltway types like to call a “shakeup.”
This shakeup is more like a shakeout, with Bannon and his unprepared but monomaniacal aides, Stephen Miller and Sebastian Gorka, more in control of U.S. foreign policy than ever. The much-lampooned press secretary Sean Spicer is also reportedly on the way out, apparently because Melissa McCarthy’s impersonation of him is too accurate to please the president.
Whether Republicans on Capitol Hill develop a spine and investigate Flynn’s contacts is, as always, an open question.
In an interview with Politico’s Susan Glasser, Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, described Trump as a “wrecking ball president.” But Corker made it clear that he will not step in front of that wrecking ball.
As Trump flails, the leaks from the two federal investigations will continue. Flynn is the first victim of the national security factions out to defend their prerogatives from Trump’s destructive ways. He will not be the last.