WASHINGTON — Amid reports that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn might be forced out of his post, President Trump managed to escape being asked about the controversy at his press conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
With no definitive statement from the president, confusion reigned over Flynn’s future. Trump’s close aide Kellyanne Conway went on MSNBC to say Flynn had the “full confidence” of the president, but later in the afternoon, press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was still “evaluating the situation.”
None of the four reporters from the two countries who were called on for questions at the press conference asked about Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials, to the widespread dismay of the White House press corps. On Friday, the Washington Post published a report backed by nine sources claiming Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about economic sanctions against his country during the transition. Flynn initially denied that the conversation took place. Reportedly, he personally assured Vice President Mike Pence that he did not discuss sanctions with the Russians — an assurance Pence repeated publicly.
White House officials later said Flynn did indeed talk about sanctions in his conversations with Moscow.
The flurry of reports have led to rumors that Flynn could lose his position on the National Security Council. Critics have called for Flynn’s dismissal and noted that his conversations could constitute a violation of the Logan Act, an 18th-century law barring private citizens from negotiating with foreign nations that have disputes with the United States.
The Monday press conference followed the normal pattern for a joint appearance with the president and a foreign head of state: opening remarks from both leaders are followed by four questions. The standard protocol is for the White House to select two American journalists to ask questions and the visiting government to name two reporters from their press corps.
The first reporter whom the president picked to ask a question was Scott Thuman of the local television station WJLA, which is owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group, a news company that had a favorable relationship with Trump during the election last year. Rather than asking about the storm swirling around Flynn, Thuman inquired about the “notable and philosophical differences” between Trudeau, who is a liberal, and Trump.
“I’m curious, as you move forward on issues from trade to terrorism, how do you see this relationship playing out?” Thuman asked. “Are there any specific areas with which, during your conversation today, you each decided to perhaps alter or amend your stances already, on those sensitive issues like terrorism and immigration?”
Trump answered by predicting that his administration will “have a great relationship with Canada.”
“We have some wonderful ideas on immigration. We have some, I think, very strong, very tough ideas on the tremendous problem that we have with terrorism,” he said.
The president concluded his response to Thuman by promising that the two countries will be “doing some cross-border things that will make it a lot easier for trade.”
“We have, through technology, we have some really great ideas, and they’ll be implemented fairly quickly,” Trump said.
The second American reporter whom Trump called on to ask a question was Kaitlan Collins of the conservative website Daily Caller.
“Now that you’ve been in office and received intelligence briefings for nearly one month, what do you see as the most important national security matters facing us?” Collins asked.
Trump answered by saying there are “many, many problems.” He went on to note there are security issues both “internationally” and “right here.” He cited North Korea, “problems all over the Middle East” and “problems just about every corner of the globe, no matter where you look.”
The two Canadian reporters selected by Trudeau were Tonda MacCharles of the Toronto Star and Richard Latendresse of TVA Group. MacCharles asked about the two leaders’ contrasting attitudes on Syrian refugees. The final question came from Latendresse, who asked whether Trump wanted to make “big changes or small changes” as the pair renegotiates the North American Free Trade Agreement.
After Latendresse’s question, Trump and Trudeau left the East Room. As they departed, Yahoo News yelled to Trump, asking whether Flynn still has his confidence. Although the question was clearly audible in the room, Trump did not answer it.
This was my best attempt to make sure someone asked about Flynn pic.twitter.com/d3hrz0jbaL
— Hunter Walker (@hunterw) February 13, 2017
As they filed out of the East Room, members of the White House press corps openly griped about the fact that none of the American reporters called upon had asked about Flynn.
“I’m just embarrassed for us. That was really embarrassing,” one reporter said.
Collins quickly left the room, but Thuman left with most of the press corps. Some of the reporters asked Thuman about his conversations with the White House. He said that he was not assured that he would get the opportunity to ask a question but was told that he should make sure to come to the press conference. According to Thuman, the White House did not ask whether he would have a question about Flynn.
Outside observers also expressed shock that Trump was not asked about Flynn at the press conference. Jennifer Griffin, the national security correspondent at the conservative Fox News channel, even posted a tweet asking whether the questions were “planted.”
Later on Monday afternoon, reports surfaced that Flynn had called Pence to apologize for misleading him, saying that he now believes he might have discussed sanctions in the phone conversation, but that he could not be certain of it. While Trump has yet to personally address Flynn and his future, the president’s close aide Kellyanne Conway appeared on MSNBC soon after the press conference and said Flynn has the “full confidence” of the president.