Opinion writer

The Trump administration’s Russia scandal has many tentacles, but it’s becoming clear that there is one figure who connects to nearly all of them: former national security adviser Michael Flynn. If Donald Trump does end up being impeached, or at the very least finds his presidency irreparably hobbled, Flynn will be the key reason why.

He’s Haldeman, Ehrlichman and Oliver North wrapped up into one.

Some of us were warning many months ago about the danger of having Flynn in such a sensitive post as national security adviser, but that assessment was based on his temperament and history — the fact that he is an Islamophobe, that he had shown himself to be gullible about absurd conspiracy theories, and that he had been fired by President Barack Obama for mismanagement when he ran the Defense Intelligence Agency.

But back then we didn’t know the half of it. Today brings not one but two blockbuster stories about Flynn. Let’s begin with this, from Vera Bergengruen of McClatchy:

One of the Trump administration’s first decisions about the fight against the Islamic State was made by Michael Flynn weeks before he was fired — and it conformed to the wishes of Turkey, whose interests, unbeknownst to anyone in Washington, he’d been paid more than $500,000 to represent.

The decision came 10 days before Donald Trump had been sworn in as president, in a conversation with President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, who had explained the Pentagon’s plan to retake the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa with Syrian Kurdish forces whom the Pentagon considered the U.S.’s most effective military partners. Obama’s national security team had decided to ask for Trump’s sign-off, since the plan would all but certainly be executed after Trump had become president.

Flynn didn’t hesitate. According to timelines distributed by members of Congress in the weeks since, Flynn told Rice to hold off, a move that would delay the military operation for months.

Bergengruen further reports: “Some members of Congress, in private conversations, have even used the word ‘treason’ to describe Flynn’s intervention.” Even if that’s not quite true — Flynn wasn’t helping our enemies, at least not directly and intentionally — this appears to be as shocking an incident of corruption as I can recall. Flynn seems to have altered American military policy in order to do the bidding of a foreign government that was secretly paying him half a million dollars to advance their interests.

In a time of less all-encompassing madness, that would be the scandal of the year. But it’s only the beginning. Here’s a report from Matthew Rosenberg and Mark Mazzetti of the New York Times:

Michael T. Flynn told President Trump’s transition team weeks before the inauguration that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign, according to two people familiar with the case.

Despite this warning, which came about a month after the Justice Department notified Mr. Flynn of the inquiry, Mr. Trump made Mr. Flynn his national security adviser. The job gave Mr. Flynn access to the president and nearly every secret held by American intelligence agencies.

Mr. Flynn’s disclosure, on Jan. 4, was first made to the transition team’s chief lawyer, Donald F. McGahn II, who is now the White House counsel. That conversation, and another one two days later between Mr. Flynn’s lawyer and transition lawyers, shows that the Trump team knew about the investigation of Mr. Flynn far earlier than has been previously reported.

So on Jan. 4, Flynn told Don McGahn that not only was he a paid agent of the Turkish government; he was also under investigation because he kept that fact a secret. We don’t know what McGahn did with this information. Did he rush into the president-elect’s office and say, “Sir, there’s something you need to know before you make Flynn your national security adviser”? Did he tell Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who was in charge of the transition?

We don’t know. But Pence told Fox News on March 9 that he had just learned from the media — where the story was just breaking — that Flynn had registered as an agent of Turkey. That was two months after Flynn told McGahn. It seems hard to believe that McGahn wouldn’t have shared that information with Pence and Trump, but who knows.

There are so many intersecting lines to the Flynn story that it’s worth wrapping them all up just so we might be able to keep it straight:

  • During the 2016 campaign, while he was acting as Donald Trump’s chief adviser on national security, Flynn was paid $500,000 to advance the interests of the Turkish government. He failed to register as a foreign agent as the law requires, only doing so retroactively in March.
  • Flynn was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russia for speaking engagements, possibly in violation of a law that requires former officers to get permission before accepting such payments.
  • During the campaign Flynn had multiple conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, during which he may have discussed the possibility of the U.S. easing sanctions on Russia.
  • According to a new report from Reuters, “Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations, four current U.S. officials said.”
  • Flynn lied to people within the Trump administration about his conversations with Kislyak, claiming they never discussed sanctions. He also lied to FBI investigators about this fact, which they knew because they had recordings of the conversations gathered in the course of surveillance of Kislyak.
  • In late January, acting attorney general Sally Yates informed the White House that because Flynn was publicly lying about his conversations and the Russians knew it, that left him susceptible to blackmail. He remained in his job for 18 more days, with access to the most sensitive meetings and documents. Only once it became public that he had been lying about his conversations with Kislyak was Flynn fired.
  • After the firing, Trump urged FBI Director James B. Comey to drop the investigation into Flynn, according to contemporaneous notes Comey took. “I hope you can let this go,” Comey quotes Trump as saying.

Put all this together and the picture that emerges is of a potentially corrupt, dishonest, compromised figure whose actions trigger further dishonesty and perhaps even obstruction of justice on the part of other officials, including the president. Trump has displayed a loyalty to Flynn that is utterly out of character, of a kind that he seems to extend to almost no one outside his immediate family, repeatedly defending Flynn in public and private. He has even kept in touch with Flynn since firing him, sending him encouraging texts. Why?

At this point it’s hard to know. What we do know is that much of the investigation into the ever-widening Russia scandal, from both congressional committees and newly installed independent counsel Robert Mueller, will revolve around Michael Flynn.

And it’s entirely possible that, in the end, it will be Flynn — what he did, and what Trump did about him — that winds up hobbling or destroying this presidency.