Just over three weeks into the Trump administration, one of the many potential scandals floating around the White House came to fruition on Monday night as retired general Michael Flynn stepped down as national security advisor. This was a consequence of Flynn 1. speaking to Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak in December, after Donald Trump's victory but before his inauguration and reportedly discussing sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in response to Russian meddling in the election; 2. telling the press that he did not talk about sanctions; and 3. reportedly telling Vice President Mike Pence that sanctions weren't mentioned, putting Pence in the position of backing up Flynn's story in public without knowing the details.
All of this came out in an embarrassing trickle, with Flynn admitting through a spokesperson a few days ago that, OK, maybe he talked about sanctions but couldn't remember before coming out and saying, in his resignation letter, that he "inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador." That inadvertent briefing was especially foolish because the government routinely wiretaps calls made by ambassadors from US rivals—and in fact the Justice Department, according to the Washington Post, told the White House last month that Flynn was publicly misrepresenting his talk with Kislyak.
According to the New York Times, White House advisor Steve Bannon was among those pushing for Flynn's resignation, and the key was not the call to the Russian ambassador but the way he misled Pence, suggesting that the real offense, in the Trump team's eyes, was not being straight with others in the administration.
Flynn's fall was practically inevitable for at least a few days, but his departure doesn't mark the end of this story. Here are some questions that remain, some of which will be answered in the coming days and some of which we'll probably never know:
What Did Flynn Actually Say to the Russian Ambassador?
This is one of the questions that's likely to go unanswered, unless a transcript of the wiretapped conversation ever gets leaked. The Kremlin has insisted that Flynn never talked about lifting the sanctions imposed by Obama, but given what's been reported, Flynn did talk out of turn somehow. According to the Post, Sally Yates, then deputy attorney general, told the White House in January that Flynn may have broken the law and at the very least was vulnerable to Russian blackmail because he was denying the contents of the conversation in public. Flynn has indicated he's friendly to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, even doing a paid appearance at an event for Kremlin-funded news outlet RT, but it's hard to believe that he would make overt promises to a foreign official on a phone call that would obviously be recorded. Right?
Who Knew About Flynn's Conversation with the Ambassador, and When?
Had Flynn been upfront about that phone call from the beginning, it's possible that he could have kept his job. But if the Post's reporting (based on multiple accounts) is correct, the White House knew that Flynn was being duplicitous for weeks—yet administration spokesperson and cable news punching bag Kellyanne Conway was going on MSNBC to say Trump had "full confidence" in Flynn hours before he resigned. In a sharp Tuesday-morning interview with The Today Show's Matt Lauer, Conway suggested that Flynn would have kept his job if he hadn't resigned, despite Trump presumably knowing, thanks to the Justice Department's briefing, that Flynn hadn't been telling the truth about the phone call. "Kellyanne, that makes no sense," Lauer told her, a phrase that should probably be on a T-shirt.
When Did the Trump Administration Make the Call to Cut Flynn Loose?
"Misleading the vice president was the key here," Conway told Lauer, which, as Lauer noted, makes no sense. It's inconsistent with the idea that Flynn quit of his own volition, but also impossible to reconcile with what actually happened. Again, the White House knew that Flynn misled Pence since the Justice Department made its report in January, though Trump said on Friday that he wasn't up to speed on the affair. (This might not have been a lie; Trump could have simply not read internal reports on Flynn or not have been personally briefed, which is its own problem.) The sequence of events suggests that it's not the crime or the cover-up, but the public humiliation of having a (rather clumsy) cover-up discovered by the press.
What's the Deal with Trump and Russia, Anyway?
Hovering over all of this is the specter of Trump's ties to Russia. A lot of conversations about alleged connections Trump's businesses and administration have to Russia and Putin are pure speculation that border on conspiracy theories. A widely circulated dossier compiled by a former British intelligence officer at the behest of anti-Trump groups in the US contained some ridiculous tidbits, like the idea that Trump was filmed in a golden-showers situation with Russian prostitutes, but less controversial elements of that dossier have since been confirmed by other investigators. And Carter Page, who Trump said advised him during the campaign but no longer works for him, has ties to Russia that the FBI has scrutinized.
Though Trump has not lifted any sanctions against Russia, the president has publicly said that he would be open to working with Russia to fight ISIS, and has surrounded himself with people—including Flynn, Page, and former campaign manager Paul Manafort—who have links to Russia. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that if Flynn were being friendly to the Russian ambassador it would have been endorsed, implicitly or explicitly, by others in the administration. (The Kremlin has indicated that it's sorry to see Flynn go and regards it as a step backward in relations with the US.)
On Tuesday, some Republican senators reiterated calls to investigate ties between Trump and Russia, and said they wanted Flynn to testify. Meanwhile, Russia has reportedly deployed a cruise missile that violates an arms treaty.
Will This Help Things at the National Security Council?
Though it was Flynn's clumsy handling of the call that got him fired, a lot of people, including former secretary of state Colin Powell, thought he had shifted over to right-wing extremism in recent years and had been a poor manager at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Those concerns were born out by a humdinger of a New York Times story published over the weekend about turmoil and mismanagement at the NSC, for which Flynn is presumably at least partly responsible. The silver lining for the Trump administration is that it'll be able to get someone in the national security advisor role who won't be as disruptive.
Who Will Replace Flynn?
The only question we're likely to know the answer to shortly is who Flynn's replacement will be. For now, Keith Kellogg, a retired Army general turned contractor who was formerly the NSC chief of staff, will take over for him. (He's mostly known for helping oversee the disastrous early occupation of Iraq during the George W. Bush years as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority.) If Kellogg doesn't get the job permanently, the top candidates are reportedly Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a former Navy Seal who was part of the George W. Bush administration, and David Petraeus. The latter, of course, was a highly respected general who led counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq before becoming director of the CIA under Obama, who then had to resign in disgrace for sharing classified information with his biographer, who he was also having an affair with. If Trump picks Petraeus, the former general will have to notify his probation officer, since he's under state supervision until April for mishandling classified documents.
Who Will Be the Next Victim of Leaks?
Donald Trump, of all people, made an interesting point on Twitter Tuesday morning:
The leaks are hardly the only "real story" here, but it's worth noting that what started Flynn's downfall appears to have been an article last week in the Washington Post contradicting his original account of the call. That article and subsequent pieces describing the Justice Department's briefing of the White House, among other tidbits, were based on leaks. For whatever reason, Trump aides have been continuously feeding the press information about the inner workings of the administration, often in ways that make the Trump team look incompetent, poorly prepared, or (as in Flynn's case) flat-out dishonest. There are more than 1,400 days left in Trump's term—it doesn't seem likely that Flynn will be the only figure felled by loose lips.
Follow Harry Cheadle on Twitter.