What to make (and not make) of Michael Flynn’s resignation

The resignation of President Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn is the latest plot twist in a young administration not short on drama. Flynn’s departure follows weeks of intrigue surrounding his frequent contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and ongoing questions about Russia’s role in hacking emails of the Democrat National Committee during last year’s election.

Will Flynn’s departure be a tourniquet on the Russia issue or a new injury?

Michael Flynn, a former Army General who led the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama, has a reputation as a brilliant intelligence analyst but a bit of a bull in the china shop. It was the latter quality that got him sacked by Obama, but his hard-charging style and refusal to mince words about the threat of radical islamic terrorism is also what endured him to Donald Trump. Like his boss, Flynn doesn’t fit the mold of his predecessors. It was unusual for an incoming National Security Advisor to be coordinating so closely with a foreign diplomat during the transition, but not particularly surprising in an administration about which there is little that is usual. And, before we all get carried away, it’s worth noting that it wasn’t illegal either, as Dani Pletka’s excellent column points out.

Rather, it was misleading his White House colleagues, specifically Vice President Mike Pence, that got Flynn in trouble. In Flynn’s words, “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.”

Flynn’s resignation raises new questions even as it answers old ones.

It also renews speculation about broader issues regarding Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign and contacts between campaign officials and the Russian government. At the least it is yet another distraction for an administration still finding its footing.

The Washington Post reported that then Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House Counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn had misrepresented his conversations with Russia’s ambassador, raising concern that he was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. National Security Advisor is among the most sensitive posts in the government, making the message Yates delivered especially alarming.

It is not known whether McGahn shared the information about Michael Flynn with President Trump. If Trump was aware of Yates’ message, it is legitimate to ask why someone potentially compromised by any foreign government, much less Russia, was allowed to continue in this position for so long. If Flynn’s actions were only addressed because news reports made him a liability, there is further reason to be concerned. If the Washington Post had more incompetent reporters (and Trump a less leaky administration), how long would Flynn have been allowed to stay?

Coming on the heels of revelations about Russian hacking of the DNC and unverified reports of inappropriate contacts between Russian officials and members of Trump’s team, there’s a lot of smoke. It is easy to start confusing speculation with evidence of fire.

Manafort, Page, and Now Flynn…

Michael Flynn is the third member of Trump’s orbit to resign amid rumors related to Russia.

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager was dismissed this summer amidst a swirl of rumors about his financial dealings with the former pro-Russian President of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych.

Carter Page, a campaign foreign policy advisor to Trump, stepped down in September in the wake of reports that U.S. intelligence agencies were looking into whether Page was secretly coordinating with Russian officials.

And now Michael Flynn…

All three are implicated in the opposition research dossier compiled by former MI6 agent Christopher Steele, much of which remains unverified.

While recent reports have verified that some of the conversations between Russian officials described in Steele’s dossier did take place, it’s important to note that the accusations about Manafort and Page are still largely unsubstantiated.

Take a Deep Breath…

Even if the allegations are all true, and that’s still a big if, it is not at all clear that that Flynn, Manafort and Page were acting at the direction, or even knowledge of President Trump. It is entirely conceivable that Manefort and Page were peddling their ties to Trump to their own financial advantage and that’s where it ends.

It’s easy to jump to conclusions. That is unwise until until we know more. In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with asking questions. The FBI is investigating and will continue to do so. It is appropriate that Congress look into this as well. Just because the story so far reads like a spy thriller, doesn’t necessarily mean that it will end like one.

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