THE MORNING PLUM:
Flynn had told Vice President Pence that he never discussed sanctions against Russia with the ambassador, which the Obama administration instituted in response to charges of Russian meddling in the election. But the FBI had established that this was false, and acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned senior White House officials in late January that this made Flynn vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Yet Flynn remained in his post for weeks after that, and the White House publicly stood by Flynn’s account. In a remarkable interview on NBC Tuesday morning, senior Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway tried to spin her way out of this basic set of facts, but could not do so, because the facts would not yield:
NBC’s Matt Lauer pressed Conway again and again on one crucial point: Why did Flynn get pushed out (or “resign”) only now, when it was known weeks ago, thanks to the warnings from the Justice Department, that he had misled Pence about what he had discussed with the Russian ambassador?
Conway responded again and again that the fact that Flynn had misled Pence on this point had become “unsustainable.” Lauer responded by asking: If misleading Pence had become “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” why didn’t it lead to Flynn’s resignation before last night, given that it was known that Flynn had done this weeks ago? Indeed, Lauer noted, Justice had warned the White House well in advance of last night that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail, yet this still didn’t lead to Flynn’s ouster.
Pressed on that point, all Conway could do was respond that Flynn had been in on national security briefings and deliberations as late as yesterday, and then added that, “as time wore on, obviously the situation had become unsustainable.” But that’s an implicit concession that Flynn had been kept in this highly sensitive role despite the fact that his situation had become “unsustainable.”
One explanation that makes sense, within the strictures of the fact set that Conway herself offered, is that Flynn’s situation only became “unsustainable” from Trump’s point of view because the facts about the Justice Department’s warnings became public after reporters unearthed them. Indeed, as The Post’s overview notes:
The White House appears to have let its repeated false statements about Flynn stand for weeks after that notification from Yates, and has yet to account for what it did with the warning she conveyed. The disclosures about Flynn have added to the swirling suspicion about the Trump administration’s relationship with Moscow — suspicion based in part on Trump’s repeated expressions of admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Politico, meanwhile, talks to a person familiar with Conway’s thinking and reports that she “was aware of the uncertainty about Flynn’s future and the concerns in Trump’s orbit but tried to telegraph on TV that the adviser wasn’t in trouble hoping the storm could pass.” But the very act of wanting the “storm to pass” is tantamount to wanting to keep the public in the dark about what the White House knew to be true about Flynn — and about what Justice had warned about.
Thus, this episode now raises questions about why Flynn was not pushed out earlier. These questions feed directly into other lingering questions, such as why Trump would want Flynn to remain at all, given that Justice had concluded that Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail, and why Trump continues to resist calls for a full, independent probe into alleged Russian meddling in the election. This is now happening because the media unearthed previously unknown facts about the Justice Department’s warning.
The broader context here is the ongoing war that the Trump White House has declared on the media. Again and again, Trump and White House officials have accused news organizations of deliberate deception, even for the sin of accurately reporting on Trump’s inaugural crowds. Trump’s top adviser Stephen K. Bannon has offered up sublime bluster about how the news media has “no power,” arguing that its aggressive reporting on the Trump White House reflects nothing more than panicked media elite shrieking about the “new political order” that Trump is raising out of the ashes of the corrupt old order. As I’ve argued, the Trump White House has established — as an explicit, actionable doctrine — the goal of trying to obliterate the possibility of agreement on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in informing the citizenry, and even on facts and reality itself.
But this Flynn episode suggests that facts and reality do matter. The Trump White House is not invulnerable to them. A dogged and determined press corps can indeed ferret them out, notwithstanding the White House’s efforts to render them meaningless and irrelevant — or indeed to make them disappear.
* WHITE HOUSE KNEW ABOUT WARNINGS FOR WEEKS: We now know that the Justice Department had warned that Flynn misled Trump senior Trump officials about the call with Russia, making Flynn vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Note this, from The Post’s overview:
A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn’s resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that “we’ve been working on this for weeks.”
But Kellyanne Conway said as late as yesterday that Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn. How do you square those two things?
* WHAT DID TRUMP KNOW, AND WHEN? CNN lays out the next set of questions:
[The revelations about Flynn] exposed the White House itself to questions about what officials did with the Justice Department warning and whether Trump himself was told. Also unknown is whether Trump was aware that Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about American sanctions imposed on Moscow late in the Obama administration to punish the Kremlin’s alleged intervention in the presidential election.
Obviously, reporters will continue to pull on threads such as these, meaning this will only continue.
* TRUMP ADVISERS WONDERED WHY HE STUCK BY FLYNN: Politico adds these details:
Trump spent the weekend in difficult conversations about Flynn and talked with a number of top aides on Monday, many of whom told the president to get rid of Flynn, according to several people who spoke with him. Two people close to Trump said that many in Trump’s world had turned on Flynn and used the latest story to try and drive him out. Others in Trump’s immediate circle wondered “why Trump kept defending him.”
How long until specific senior Trump advisers let it be known that they supposedly urged Trump to push Flynn out?
* MEANWHILE, THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL IS A MESS: The Post overview of the situation lays out the larger context here:
Flynn’s departure…compounds the confusion in the National Security Council that is supposed to serve as a disciplined coordination center for the administration’s handling of international affairs. Instead, the White House faces an escalating court fight over an immigration ban aimed at Muslim-majority countries, has alienated key allies with Trump’s brusque phone calls to foreign leaders, and seemed so caught off-guard by North Korea’s recent ballistic missile test that Trump and senior officials were shown learning of the development on cell phones in full view of patrons at Trump’s Mar-a Lago resort.
And there hasn’t even been a real crisis yet.
* DEMS DEMAND FULL CLASSIFIED BRIEFING: CBS News reports that Reps. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.) and Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the ranking Dems on the Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees, respectively, are demanding to know why the White House did not alert the public about concerns Flynn misled:
The two are demanding to know who had authority over Flynn and continued to let him have access to the country’s “most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks.” And Conyers and Cummings are also now calling for a full classified briefing by all the relevant agencies — the Justice Department and the FBI.
It will be interesting to see if any Republicans join in demanding such an accounting.
* WILL FLYNN’S RESIGNATION REALLY MATTER? Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy (Conn.) tweets out a good point in response to Flynn’s resignation:
Flynn's departure only matters if 1) he's followed by a mainstream, experienced replacement, 2) we get to bottom of the Trump/Russia story.— Chris Murphy (@ChrisMurphyCT) February 14, 2017
The second of those seems particularly unlikely.
* IS PUZDER’S NOMINATION IN TROUBLE? The Post reports that criticism of Trump labor sectary pick Andrew Puzder over workplace violations at his fast food chain, and his hiring of an undocumented labor at his home, may be taking their toll:
The Republican senators who were noncommittal about Puzder’s nomination on Monday — Susan Collins (Maine), Johnny Isakson (Ga.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Tim Scott (S.C.) — sit on the committee that will hold his confirmation hearing Thursday. If they oppose him, his nomination is all but certainly dead.
We may see another tie-breaking vote cast by Pence, as happened with Education Secretary Betsy DeVos — underscoring the depth of opposition to Trump.