At the White House briefing Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer served up a newly detailed chronology of events leading to the resignation of President Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn.
The key piece of news: Spicer told reporters that Trump had been informed nearly three weeks ago that the Department of Justice had privately warned the White House that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
This confirmed the Post’s report that late last month, acting Attorney General Sally Yates told the White House that the FBI had discovered that Flynn had, in fact, had conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions against Russia, which President Obama instituted in retaliation for Russian meddling in the election. Flynn had denied this, and White House officials stood by his denial.
Spicer said that Trump, having been informed of this, immediately and decisively instituted an internal review of what happened, which culminated in Trump finally losing trust in Flynn and asking for his resignation.
But this chronology raises still more questions. Why did Trump’s loss of confidence in Flynn only become decisive enough to bring about Flynn’s resignation when the Post made it public last night that the Justice Department had warned of this, three weeks after that happened? If Trump was losing confidence in Flynn, why was he sitting in very sensitive national security briefings as late as yesterday?
The chronology Spicer offered today began with the claim that acting Attorney General Yates had given the White House counsel a heads up about what the FBI had learned, as the Post reported last night. Spicer then said:
“The White House counsel informed the president immediately. The president asked him to conduct a review of whether there was a legal situation there. That was immediately determined that there wasn’t….The issue pure and simple came down to a matter of trust, and the president concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security adviser…And the erosion of that trust was frankly the issue.”
In other words, according to this account, Trump asked the White House counsel to determine whether Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador raised legal issues. The White House counsel determined that they didn’t. Then, after that, some sort of internal process began that was meant to determine whether Flynn could be trusted. And eventually, after an “erosion” of trust, Trump concluded that he could not.
It is possible that this is true, but it is not easy to square this with the other known facts. For instance, it is a miraculous coincidence that Trump’s erosion of trust finally reached the breaking point just as the Post published its story making the news of the Justice Department’s warning to the White House public.
Indeed, that erosion of trust was very rapid indeed — that is, if we take Kellyanne Conway’s account of what happened to be true.
In an interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer on Tuesday morning, Conway repeatedly said that over time, Flynn’s misleading of Pence had become “unsustainable.” But she also avoided saying when that happened. In fact, Conway confirmed to Lauer that Flynn had enjoyed Trump’s full confidence as late as Monday morning. Conway also had this exchange with Lauer:
LAUER: You’re saying that that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. But the White House knew about that last month, when the Justice Department warned the White House that General Flynn had not been completely honest in characterizing that conversation with the Russian ambassador, and they went further to say that as a result of that dishonesty, he was at risk for blackmailing by the Russians.
CONWAY: Well, that’s one characterization. But the fact is that General Flynn continued in that position, and was in the presidential daily briefings — was part of the leader calls — as recently as yesterday…as time wore on, obviously the situation had become unsustainable.
Conway meant all of this to exonerate Flynn from Lauer’s suggestion that he was at risk of blackmailing. But it actually ends up cutting against the chronology that Spicer offered today. If Trump’s trust in Flynn was eroding, it hadn’t eroded enough for him to lose full confidence in him as of yesterday, and as of then, Flynn was still involved in the most sensitive internal national security discussions. Again, it is Conway who is claiming those two things to be true.
It seems plausible that Trump either didn’t believe the warnings from the Justice Department, or didn’t act on them, or just wasn’t focused on them — and that a decision was made to fast-track Flynn’s resignation as the Post report made the Justice Department’s warnings public. Of course, any of those explanations would demand further elaboration and justification, and none would support the idea that Trump acted decisively after receiving those warnings.
The bottom line is that key questions as to why Flynn was left in this position — after the Justice Department had offered the White House counsel this warning, which Spicer himself now confirms Trump was briefed about — remain unanswered. And it still remains unclear why White House officials repeatedly said for an extended period that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, despite having been warned by the Justice Department to the contrary.