Flynn is gone, but se­ri­ous ques­tions re­main

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - DAVID IG­NATIUS

Pres­i­dent Trump con­fronts com­pli­cated prob­lems as the in­ves­ti­ga­tion widens into Rus­sia’s at­tack on our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem. But his re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are sim­ple: A month ago, he swore an oath that he would “faith­fully ex­e­cute” his of­fice and “pre­serve, pro­tect and de­fend the Con­sti­tu­tion of the United States.”

That’s ap­par­ently eas­ier said than done. In a ram­bling news con­fer­ence Thurs­day and his bliz­zard of tweets, Trump has dis­missed in­quiries into his cam­paign’s con­tacts with Rus­sia and de­nounced leak­ers as “low-life” and “un-Amer­i­can.” Th­ese state­ments seem more likely to con­found on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions than faith­fully ex­e­cute his role as chief ex­ec­u­tive.

Michael Flynn’s forced res­ig­na­tion as na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser this week, af­ter he con­cealed de­tails of his con­tacts with a Rus­sian di­plo­mat, has been blurred by Trump’s con­tra­dic­tory com­ments. So it’s worth go­ing back to ba­sics: Why was the United States ex­pelling Rus­sian spies at the time Flynn made his late-De­cem­ber call to Rus­sian Am­bas­sador Sergey Kislyak? Why would Flynn have hid­den for weeks that he talked with Kislyak about those anti-Rus­sian sanc­tions, or have de­nied it to the FBI, as The Post re­ported late Thurs­day? What would Trump have known about th­ese is­sues?

You don’t need leaks of clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to un­der­stand why Flynn’s deal­ings with an ag­gres­sive Rus­sia were in­ap­pro­pri­ate. You just need to look at the pub­lic record.

The se­ri­ous­ness of Rus­sia’s as­sault on Amer­ica first be­came clear on Oct. 7, when the in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity re­leased a state­ment charg­ing that “Rus­sia’s se­nior­most of­fi­cials” (mean­ing Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin) had launched a cy­ber­at­tack “in­tended to in­ter­fere with the U.S. elec­tion process.”

In­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials had been brief­ing mem­bers of Congress about the Rus­sian ac­tiv­i­ties since the sum­mer. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the rank­ing Demo­crat on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, had pushed the White House since Septem­ber to re­spond, to no avail. FBI Di­rec­tor James B. Comey, mean­while, had de­cided against dis­clos­ing the bu­reau’s own pre­elec­tion in­ves­ti­ga­tion of pos­si­ble links be­tween Rus­sia and the Trump cam­paign.

So on Elec­tion Day, the pub­lic wasn’t aware of the grow­ing be­lief among in­tel­li­gence an­a­lysts that Rus­sian hack­ers were try­ing to help Trump and hurt his ri­val, Hil­lary Clin­ton. That judg­ment was shared many weeks af­ter the elec­tion, in a Jan. 6 re­port that said Rus­sia sought to “den­i­grate Sec­re­tary Clin­ton and harm her electabil­ity and po­ten­tial pres­i­dency” and that the Krem­lin “de­vel­oped a clear pref­er­ence” for Trump.

Pres­i­dent Barack Obama fi­nally took de­ci­sive ac­tion on Dec. 29, when he an­nounced sanc­tions in­clud­ing ex­pul­sion of 35 Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence operatives and clo­sure of two “vacation” com­pounds, on New York’s Long Is­land and Mary­land’s East­ern Shore, which the Rus­sians were us­ing to col­lect signals in­tel­li­gence. (The loss of those mon­i­tor­ing plat­forms may ex­plain why a Rus­sian spy ship car­ry­ing a for­est of an­ten­nae sailed up the Delaware coast to­ward Con­necti­cut this week.)

Here’s where the time­line gets in­trigu­ing: The White House said in a Dec. 29 con­fer­ence call with re­porters that Obama had in­formed Trump about the im­pend­ing sanc­tions on Dec. 28, one of the days when Flynn com­mu­ni­cated with Kislyak, ac­cord­ing to the Trump team. (U.S. of­fi­cials told me a call took place Dec. 29.) Hours af­ter the ex­pul­sion was an­nounced, Trump is­sued a bland state­ment: “It’s time for our coun­try to move onto big­ger and bet­ter things.”

We now know that Flynn promised Kislyak that Trump would “re­view” the U.S. reprisals — a fact Flynn with­held from Vice Pres­i­dent Pence and the pub­lic for weeks. Flynn fi­nally shared his ver­sion with the con­ser­va­tive Daily Caller on Mon­day, the day he was fired. He said his con­ver­sa­tion with Kislyak “was about the 35 guys who were thrown out. . . . It was ba­si­cally, ‘Look, I know this hap­pened. We’ll re­view every­thing.’ ”

Flynn’s prom­ise to re­view the case ev­i­dently en­cour­aged Putin to forgo the usual tit-for-tat re­tal­i­a­tion, de­spite an ini­tial Krem­lin state­ment that there was “no alternative to re­cip­ro­cal mea­sures.” On Dec. 30, Putin said that rather than tak­ing im­me­di­ate coun­ter­mea­sures, he would in­stead seek “to re­store Rus­sian-U.S. re­la­tions based on the poli­cies of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion.”

Trump tweeted later that day: “Great move on de­lay (by V. Putin) — al­ways knew he was very smart!”

Given the mag­ni­tude of Rus­sia’s cy­ber­at­tack on the United States, it re­mains puz­zling that Flynn and Trump were so cav­a­lier about the U.S. gov­ern­ment’s at­tempt to hold Moscow ac­count­able. That’s one rea­son in­ves­ti­ga­tors keep ask­ing what con­tacts the Trump team had with Rus­sia be­fore the elec­tion. Trump said Thurs­day there hadn’t been any. Yet Rus­sian Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Ryabkov said Nov. 10: “Ob­vi­ously, we know most of the peo­ple from [ Trump’s] en­tourage.”

The FBI and the Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee are in­ves­ti­gat­ing the scope of Rus­sia’s pro-Trump ac­tiv­i­ties. In­evitably, there will be leaks, but that is­sue is a red her­ring. For all Trump’s talk about “fake news,” the coun­try needs an­swers.

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