THE PROB­LEM STARTS AT THE TOP

Trump was Flynn’s role model. That’s the un­easy truth at the heart of his abrupt exit.

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS - Jill Lawrence is the com­men­tary edi­tor of USA TO­DAY. Jill Lawrence

If you start fir­ing peo­ple for ly­ing, for pur­vey­ing “al­ter­na­tive facts,” for mak­ing U. S. for­eign pol­icy be­fore you take of­fice, for pos­si­bly hav­ing fi­nan­cial ties to Rus­sia and pos­si­bly be­ing vul­ner­a­ble to black­mail by Rus­sia, for be­ing in­ves­ti­gated by U. S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies — well. Where will it stop?

That’s the ob­vi­ous and ex­tremely un­com­fort­able ques­tion sur­round­ing the forced de­par­ture of na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn less than a month into the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion. Be­cause you might say Pres­i­dent Trump is his role model.

If the tone is set from the top, Flynn might have thought he was do­ing ex­actly as Trump wanted. And it might not just be a tone. Who knows what Trump ex­plic­itly in­structed or wit­nessed.

It was not shock­ing that events un­folded this way. Flynn was, af­ter all, the guy who took money from Rus­sia To­day, the Rus­sian pro­pa­ganda out­let, for a speak­ing en­gage­ment. Who yelled “lock her up” about Hil­lary Clin­ton at the Repub­li­can con­ven­tion. The guy who spread ru­mors of sex crimes with chil­dren on­line and spread lies, or at least un­true or par­tial in­for­ma­tion, about whether his son had a se­cu­rity clear­ance and whether he dis­cussed Obama- era sanc­tions with Rus­sia ( both cases in which Vice Pres­i­dent Pence got burned).

This is also the guy whose son not only pro­moted the cer­ti­fi­ably hal­lu­ci­na­tory “news” about a Hil­lary Clin­ton- run child sex slave ring at the Comet Ping Pong pizza joint in my neigh­bor­hood, but also gloated on Twit­ter about what he called the # Mus­lim-Ban. Most other con­ser­va­tives knew enough not to advertise Trump’s travel ban in a way that seemed patently un­con­sti­tu­tional. That’s when young Flynn fi­nally shut down his Twit­ter ac­count ( al­though he re­vived it briefly Tues­day to de­fend his dad).

The father and son clearly never made the tran­si­tion from cam­paign mode to gov­ern­ing mode. Re­mind you of any­one?

WIN­TER SIT­U­A­TION ROOM

Is the Flynn exit a sign that Trump is get­ting se­ri­ous? That his ex­ec­u­tive or­ders will be less like press re­leases and his tweets will be more teth­ered to re­al­ity, and that the awe­some re­spon­si­bil­ity of the pres­i­dency is fi­nally dawn­ing on him? That he’ll fire or marginal­ize Stephen Ban­non, who seems to be itch­ing for show- downs with im­mi­grants and mi­nori­ties, as well as Iran and China? Dream on. The same day he fired Flynn, the pres­i­dent held a press con­fer­ence that never ad­dressed the rag­ing is­sue of Flynn’s fu­ture — be­cause he only called on two U. S. news out­lets, both of them rightlean­ing and sym­pa­thetic. He for­mu­lated his re­sponse to the North Korea mis­sile test at the Win­ter Sit­u­a­tion Room, aka the restau­rant ter­race at Mar- a- Lago.

And on Wed­nes­day, he called Flynn “a won­der­ful man.”

FOIBLES AND LEAKS

A top can­di­date to suc­ceed Flynn is David Pe­traeus. It’s ap­par­ently of lit­tle con­cern that the re­tired gen­eral and for­mer CIA di­rec­tor passed clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion to his bi­og­ra­pher, with whom he was hav­ing an af­fair. It might in fact be a fea­ture rather than a bug. This ad­min­is­tra­tion is note­wor­thy so far for a pile- up of per­sonal foibles and an as­ton­ish­ing flood of dam­ag­ing leaks.

Ulysses S. Grant grew up in a town with a news­pa­per called The Casti­ga­tor. My hus­band passed on that nugget from a Grant bi­og­ra­phy, and I can’t get it out of my head. For two years now, cov­er­ing Clin­ton, Trump and the politi­cians with less obvi- ous flaws who failed to stop them or even to run, in­ves­tiga­tive re­porters and opin­ion jour­nal­ists might as well have been in a TV se­ries called The Casti­ga­tors.

So let me say a few nice things about Repub­li­cans. When the Obama sis­ters left the White House, they re­ceived a wise and sweet let­ter from Bar­bara Bush and Jenna Bush Hager about how to move on with their lives. Rep. Ja­son Chaf­fetz, in an in­di­ca­tion he might ac­tu­ally do his job as head of the House Com­mit­tee on Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form, asked the Of­fice of Gov­ern­ment Ethics to in­ves­ti­gate White House se­nior coun­selor Kellyanne Con­way for plug­ging Ivanka Trump’s cloth­ing line on TV. Sen. John McCain has been stal­wart in his at­tempts to re­di­rect Trump’s Rus­sia pol­icy.

And Trump him­self has not only named solid mil­i­tary men to run De­fense and Home­land Se­cu­rity, he made a stun­ningly ex­cel­lent choice for Vet­er­ans Af­fairs sec­re­tary — Obama holdover David Shulkin. The Se­nate con­firmed him 100- 0 Mon­day night.

The glass, then, is a cou­ple of inches full. But the rest re­mains empty. That is be­cause the real prob­lem is at the top.

JIM WATSON, AFP/ GETTY IM­AGES

Pres­i­dent- elect Don­ald Trump and Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­viser des­ig­nate Michael Flynn on Dec. 21 in Palm Beach, Fla.

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