National security adviser Michael Flynn allegedly spoke to Russia's ambassador about sanctions during the presidential transition in December 2016. The Post's Adam Entous explains why those phone calls are so interesting and how the Trump administration has responded to them. (Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

From The Post’s blockbuster story Thursday night, we learned:

National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.

Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn on Wednesday denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”

On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

The story is shocking and potentially fatal to Flynn’s success in the role for no less than six reasons.

First, Flynn appears to have repeatedly misled the public and his colleagues about his calls. Vice President Pence went out publicly to repeat Flynn’s defense. (“The emerging details contradict public statements by incoming senior administration officials including Mike Pence, then the vice president-elect.”) It’s not clear whether Flynn’s credibility is irreparably damaged, but allowing the vice president to put his own credibility in jeopardy is no small matter. After multiple, definitive denials, his claim of a faulty memory seems dubious.

Second, this week a story also leaked that Trump called Flynn in the middle of the night to ask if the United States wanted a strong or weak dollar. How would that story have gotten out other than by Flynn relating it to others (either to the press directly or to colleagues who talked to the press)? At a time the White House is greatly alarmed by leaks, questions must surely be raised as to whether Flynn is sufficiently discreet.

Third, a whole lot of people — “current and former U.S. officials” — don’t like him very much. (“Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.”) Frankly, they ratted him out, knowing this would severely damage his credibility. That doesn’t speak well of his long-term prospects in an administration rife with conflict and back-biting.

Fourth, Flynn is still under investigation, which raises the question of how he is being allowed to perform his duties as national security adviser.

Fifth, this episode will only heighten concerns about Flynn’s pro-Russian sensibilities. (“Like Trump, Flynn has shown an affinity for Russia that is at odds with the views of most of his military and intelligence peers. Flynn raised eyebrows in 2015 when he appeared in photographs seated next to Putin at a lavish party in Moscow for the Kremlin-controlled RT television network.”) It is not clear whether an investigation into Trump campaign contacts with Russian officials also implicates Flynn.

Sixth, this is hardly a standalone incident when one considers the travel ban fiasco, press secretary Sean Spicer’s vitriolic interactions with the press, Trump’s errant tweets, and ongoing confusion over everything from the president’s support for the Gang of Eight (the White House had to deny he was in support after a meeting with Democratic senators) to his position on Obamacare repeal. One sees a stunning level of turmoil in a White House that has virtually no senior official with prior White House experience. The fear among many Democrats and Republicans was that Cabinet officials would be cut out of the loop in this presidency; now the question is whether the White House staff is so dysfunctional as to require a shake-up.