Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act
Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It’s whether President Trump’s national security adviser sought to hide a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions the Obama administration was imposing.
“It’s far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he willfully misled this country,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told me Friday. “Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?”
Schiff said the FBI and congressional intelligence committees should investigate whether Flynn discussed with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December the imminent imposition of sanctions, and whether he encrypted any of those communications in what might have been an effort to avoid monitoring. Schiff said that if some conversations were recorded by U.S. intelligence, “we should be able to rapidly tell if Gen. Flynn was being truthful” when he told Vice President Pence and others that sanctions weren’t discussed.
Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak were first disclosed in my Jan. 12 Post column. I reported that, according to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn had phoned Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Kremlin hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign.
“What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?” the column asked. We still don’t know the answers to those questions. Flynn needs to clarify what happened, or risk losing credibility with National Security Council colleagues and the public.
The contacts gained new attention when the Post reported Thursday that the FBI was continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with the Russian official, and that the two men had discussed U.S. sanctions, contrary to the Trump team’s denials.
The possibility that Flynn violated the Logan Act was noted in that January column. But Flynn’s defenders reasonably countered that there were good public-policy reasons why a future national security adviser should talk with the ambassador of a major power about future policies. That’s one reason the Logan Act has never been enforced.
The harder question is whether Flynn was open about his conversations. The White House needs to clarify several anomalies about the timing and substance of the contacts. Perhaps these are just the missteps that afflict any new White House team, but they’re puzzling, at best.
Various Trump team members said Flynn hadn’t talked to Kislyak about the sanctions. That’s apparently what Flynn told Pence, too. But this denial became inoperative Thursday, when a spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
A national security adviser’s success depends on maintaining trust. Flynn now faces a trust deficit that can only be filled with a full accounting of what happened.