How do you go rogue in a rogue administration?
At first glance, Mike Flynn seems to have found a way, which is why he has been forced to resign as national security adviser, becoming the first in what will probably be a series of high-level departures in an administration crumbling before our eyes.
In Flynn’s case, his personal demise can be traced back to Dec. 29, the day that President Obama ejected 35 Russian diplomats as part of punitive sanctions against Russia. That day, Flynn conducted five separate phone conversations with the Russian ambassador in which he secretly reassured the Russians that better days were coming, that these sanctions would be revisited once Donald Trump took office some three weeks later.
Even under normal circumstances, the act of secretly communicating with a foreign adversary to undermine a sitting president represents an immense breach of protocol and perhaps even American law. And, of course, these particular circumstances were far from normal. The sanctions in question had been imposed to punish Russia for its extensive hacking of U.S. targets, including its well-documented effort to interfere in U.S. elections on Trump’s behalf.
Think about what that means:
You’ve got Russia hacking U.S. targets and secretly interfering on behalf of candidate Trump. The United States then attempts to punish Russia for that interference through sanctions, but the Trump team intervenes, secretly undermining the impact of those sanctions. As startling as all that sounds, none of it is in serious dispute. It happened.
Here’s what we still don’t know:
In making those phone calls and offering those assurances to Russia, was Flynn operating independently, without instructions from Trump himself? In a press briefing Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer offered a two-point answer to that question:
1.) Flynn allegedly made the decision on his own, with no prior knowledge or instructions by President Trump. That claim neatly severs Trump from responsibility, but it’s frankly hard to believe given Flynn’s military background and the respect for the chain of command that implies. It would be an act of extreme recklessness for any subordinate, especially in an administration that had not yet taken power, to offer that type of assurance to another country’s leaders on his own, without instruction. That alone would be grounds for dismissal.
2.) And yet it wasn’t grounds for dismissal. According to Spicer, Flynn’s discussion of sanctions with the Russian ambassador was perfectly appropriate and well within the bounds of his job. Flynn was supposedly asked to resign not because of those conversations, but because he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about their nature. At that point, Spicer said, it became a trust issue.
That raises a telling question. If Flynn indeed did nothing wrong, if his conversations with the Russian government were perfectly appropriate, why did he feel it necessary to lie so adamantly about them? Why did he lie not just to the American people and the media, but to Spicer and other officials and even to the vice president? Why did Flynn and everyone else in the administration continue to conceal the truth for weeks after federal law enforcement had notified them about transcripts of the conversations?
Because what they did was seriously wrong, and they knew it.