WASHINGTON — President Trump requested Michael Flynn’s resignation after a weekslong review of his contacts with a Russian diplomat led Trump to conclude he could no longer trust his national security adviser, the White House said Tuesday. But the internal investigation, led by Trump’s government lawyer, found that Flynn hadn’t violated the law.
“The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances is what led the president to ask for Gen. Flynn’s resignation,” press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters.
Spicer did not detail the nature of the “other questionable instances,” but officials pointed to news accounts of Flynn’s temper and of National Security Council dysfunction. And one career national security official told Yahoo News that Flynn had clashed last week with Defense Secretary James Mattis, whose judgment is known to carry great weight with Trump.
Trump removed Flynn ostensibly over a controversy involving contacts between the retired Army lieutenant general and a Russian diplomat during the transition. Apparently on Flynn’s say-so, top officials including Vice President Mike Pence and Spicer denied that the conversations touched on the question of U.S. sanctions imposed under the Obama administration in response to allegations that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election. Flynn at first expressed confidence that the sanctions didn’t come up, then later allowed that they might have. A bombshell Washington Post report on Friday disclosed that U.S. intelligence officials possessed transcripts of the calls that contradicted Flynn. Pence press secretary Marc Lotter said Pence “became aware” that Flynn misled him “based on news reports” on Feb. 9.
“There is nothing the general did that was a violation of any sort. He was well within his duties to discuss issues of common concern between the two countries,” Spicer said.
National security experts broadly agree that the 1799 Logan Act, which criminalizes unauthorized diplomatic overtures by nongovernment officials, won’t be invoked — only one indictment has occurred under the law, in 1803. But they note that Flynn’s overtures could violate the unwritten principle of “one president at a time,” which reserves foreign policymaking to the sitting president.
Spicer said Trump “was not aware” of the content of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian diplomat and denied that the president-elect had instructed his aide to discuss the sanctions. The press secretary also reaffirmed Trump’s denial that top aides had been in touch with the Russian government during the campaign.
The FBI has been looking into whether erstwhile top Trump advisers Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone had improper contacts with Russian officials during the election cycle.
After Pence’s public denials, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates approached White House Counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 to say that the Department of Justice had information contradicting Flynn’s account, Spicer confirmed. McGahn immediately “briefed the president and a small group of his senior advisers,” then opened an internal investigation that “determined that there is not a legal issue, but rather a trust issue,” the spokesman said. But Spicer declined to say whether any White House officials had read transcripts of Flynn’s calls, or whether those records would be made public.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that FBI investigators questioned Flynn in the first days of the administration about his Russian contacts.
As the White House labored to contain the controversy, congressional Democrats and some Republicans pushed for investigations of Trump’s relationship with Russia, and a few lawmakers said that Flynn himself should testify.
“Did Gen. Flynn do this by himself, or was he directed by somebody to do it?” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked on CNN. “Americans have a right to know whether or not this was a Gen. Flynn rogue maneuver, or was he basically speaking for somebody else in the White House.”
“The irony of this entire situation is that the president has been incredibly tough on Russia,” Spicer insisted.
Trump has noticeably softened U.S. rhetoric on Moscow, frequently praised Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign, and recently brushed back criticism of the former KGB chief’s authoritarian rule, saying, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” The White House has left it to U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to criticize Russia’s annexation of Crimea. And a Jan. 31 State Department statement about renewed fighting in eastern Ukraine, home to pro-Russia separatists armed and encouraged by Moscow, did not mention Russia.
The removal of Trump’s senior national security aide barely three weeks into his term has rattled the West Wing and added another burden to officials already weighed down with unusually bitter infighting and the botched rollout of major policy moves like the president’s new restrictions on travel by seven Muslim-majority nations.
Early in the day, acting National Security Adviser Keith Kellogg, Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland, and Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert convened an “all-hands” meeting of the National Security Council. The three told rattled staffers that no one else was leaving or being asked to leave, according to two participants.
It was not clear whom Trump would name to succeed Flynn, though Spicer said the White House hopes to announce the new national security adviser this week. Leading contenders are thought to include Kellogg, a retired general; former Vice Adm. Bob Harward; and retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus, who resigned in disgrace after improperly sharing classified information with a woman with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
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