Just when you think things can’t get crazier in the new Trump Administration, they do. On Wednesday, standing beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a White House press conference, Donald Trump blamed the press, the intelligence agencies, and Hillary Clinton for the ouster of Michael Flynn, his former national-security adviser.
“Michael Flynn, General Flynn, is wonderful man,” Trump said, after a reporter asked about Flynn. “I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it’s really a sad thing he was treated so badly.” Trump went on, “Papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It’s a criminal act. And it’s been going on for a long time before me, but now it’s really going on. People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”
The first thing to note about these statements is that they directly contradict what Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, told the world on Tuesday. According to Spicer, the President demanded Flynn’s resignation this week after gradually losing confidence in him. In plain English, Trump fired Flynn.
Clearly, though, the President still doesn’t think Flynn did anything wrong when, last December, he spoke to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, about the sanctions that the Obama Administration had imposed to punish Vladimir Putin’s regime for meddling in the U.S. election. The question, then, is why didn’t Trump simply accept the apology that Flynn offered for his role in this mess and move on? The White House has apparently seen a transcript of one conversation between Flynn and Kislyak, and, according to some reports, its contents are ambiguous, with no clear evidence of any discussion of quid pro quo. Trump could have seized on this fact and kept Flynn on. Vice-President Pence, who went on television and defended Flynn from accusations that he’d discussed the sanctions at all, would probably still have been miffed, but so what? A willingness to accept the occasional public humiliation is a prerequisite for agreeing to work for Trump—something that Pence must have been well aware of when he accepted his spot on the ticket.
It looks like what actually happened (and here I agree with the interpretation of Bloomberg View’s Eli Lake) is that the White House, in an effort to quell the growing furor over the President’s ties to Russia, offered up Flynn as a fall guy. It’s an open secret that Flynn didn’t have many allies in the West Wing. It’s also been reported that he had tensions with James Mattis, the Defense Secretary, and Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State. Over the past few weeks, in fact, it has sometimes seemed like Flynn’s only defender in the Administration was Trump, who had valued his loyalty during the bruising Presidential campaign.
But, when it comes to fending off threats to the President (any President), friendships and loyalties take second place to political necessity. Over the weekend, it was clear that some Republicans on Capitol Hill were getting increasingly concerned about the Flynn/Russia stories and the larger questions they raised. It wasn’t just the usual Trump antagonists—John McCain and Lindsey Graham—who made noise; it was loyal Party stalwarts such as Bob Corker, John Cornyn, and Roy Blunt. With G.O.P. members of this ilk going wobbly, it was essential for the White House to respond. That meant that Flynn had to go.
Trump’s bluster on Wednesday about the media, the intelligence agencies, and the Democrats was for public consumption. To be more precise, it was intended for the consumption of the forty per cent of Americans who, according to the latest Gallup poll data, approve of the job he is doing as President. Even some people in this demographic, particularly those who grew up during the Cold War, may have had difficulty rallying around the line that it’s time for America to cozy up to Putin and the Russkies. Trump had to feed his core supporters something else. So he did what he does so well: argued that the folks trying to bring him down are un-American, Hillary-lovers, backstabbers. The only new twist was the allegation that some of them—the government officials who’d leaked the Flynn story to the press—were also breaking the law. “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy,” Trump tweeted, on Wednesday morning. “Very un-American!”
This was nothing more or less than a McCarthyite smear. “By oath, intelligence officials’ first duty is to ‘defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic,’ “ Evan McMullin, the former C.I.A. operative and Republican congressional aide, who ran for President last year as an independent, pointed out on Twitter. In the cases of Flynn and the Trump campaign aides who reportedly were intercepted speaking numerous times with Russian intelligence agents, a case can be made that the leaks were driven primarily by alarm about the possible infiltration and subversion of the U.S. political system. In other words, the leakers were motivated by patriotism, not politics. To quote another of McMullin’s tweets: “So, the real scandal isn’t that the President of the United States of America appears to have been co-opted by America’s greatest adversary?”
From a constitutional and moral perspective, the country now faces a momentous question: How far did the Russian penetration of Trump’s campaign go, and what is the real basis of his desire to team up with Putin? From a political perspective, the urgent issue is a more prosaic one: How many Republicans on Capitol Hill will break with the White House and demand a proper independent investigation of the entire Russia/Trump imbroglio, either by a specially formed select committee or, even better, a 9/11-style commission?
Certainly, a few will. On Wednesday, Lindsey Graham said in a statement, “If in fact there are campaign contacts between Trump officials and Russian intelligence officers that would be a very serious event and would justify the Senate forming a Select Committee to look at all things related to Russia.” Graham went on, “The accusations regarding the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia are creating a cloud over the White House. They should be fairly investigated by the Congress in a bipartisan manner.”
Graham doesn’t speak for the Republican leadership, however. Appearing on MSNBC on Wednesday, Paul Ryan, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said, “There’s no secret here—Russia tried to meddle with our elections. This is why I’m a fan of the sanctions. This is why I’m a Russia hawk and a Russia skeptic, because their interests don’t convene with our interests.” But Ryan fell well short of calling for the establishment of a select committee, and he also pooh-poohed the suggestion that some of Trump’s associates may have colluded with the Russians during the campaign.
The White House will be content if it can confine the Russia inquiries to the congressional intelligence committees, which have already said they will look into Russian hacking. But make no mistake: Trump is facing some dangerous developments, including the sight of Senator Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, spelling things out bluntly. “The basic issue is getting to the bottom of what the Russian interference was, and what the relationship was with associates of the Trump effort,” Corker said, appearing on “Morning Joe” on Wednesday. “That is the big elephant in the room that has to be dealt with in the most appropriate way.”