In the second major blow to the Trump presidency in 3 1/2 weeks — the first being the travel ban fiasco — national security adviser Mike Flynn, whom many predicted would eventually “step on a rake,” was forced to resign hours after The Post broke the news that the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn, despite denials to Vice President Pence and other Trump officials, had spoken to the Russian ambassador about sanctions during the Trump transition. This was a spectacular, but not unexpected flame-out for someone whose temperament and preparation for the job was openly questioned. (He was previously fired for poor management skills from his post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.) For the Trump administration, the portrait of a presidency in a tailspin, and a president overwhelmed by the demands of running the executive branch threatens to paralyze the administration.
The Post’s report that set off the chain of events leading to Flynn’s ouster uncovered that the “acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.” The report continued, “The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the Russian diplomat, had told Vice President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the information.”
Even with Flynn’s departure multiple issues remain:
- What precisely did Flynn tell the Russian ambassador?
- Did the president know about the conversations?
- Did the White House counsel, who made a cardinal error in the implementation of the travel ban executive order, not tell the president about the DOJ’s warning?
- When will Republicans start taking oversight seriously and demand a select-committee or even an independent commission to investigate Flynn and the White House’s communications with Russia during the campaign? (Now that Flynn has left the White House he can be subpoenaed to testify.)
- What other staff changes are in the works?
No one in the administration or GOP congressional leadership looks very good here. Trump never should have hired Flynn, whom many warned had peculiar ties to Russia and a penchant for conspiracy theories. Kellyanne Conway, whose interviews are peppered with wrong and misleading information, said in a TV appearance just hours before Flynn resigned that he had the full confidence of the president. Republicans have been negligent in their oversight responsibilities. And the man purportedly with the most power and influence over the president, Stephen K. Bannon, who was given a seat at the NSC principal’s meetings, cannot escape blame either. Along with Flynn, Bannon has pushed a pro-Russia line and vetoed proposed candidates for office who have substantial experience, including most recently, Elliott Abrams, whom Bannon supposedly nixed as deputy secretary of state.
Flynn’s departure and the fate of Abrams, whom Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, badly wanted for his deputy, are reminders that the administration needs more than a new national security adviser. Abrams, remarkably cheery and forthright for someone who was put through a public ordeal, in a CNN interview Monday night revealed Bannon was the only one in the administration who opposed Abrams, a seasoned and widely respected conservative foreign policy veteran. Abrams urged the president not to rule out qualified people because of harsh words said during a campaign. It’s not just Trump, but Bannon, who would benefit from that counsel.
The lesson here is five-fold.
First, the current West Wing crew — from Flynn to McGahn to Bannon — got their jobs because they were with Trump during the campaign, not because they have relevant skills, personal integrity or sufficient experience. The combination of unqualified, incompetent advisers and an insecure president make for a toxic combination in which soothing the president, not telling the truth or serving the country becomes the overriding objective.
Second, since we cannot tell who is lying to whom and who is responsible for the constant stream of scandals and errors, it’s hard to know which advisers beyond Flynn, if any, Trump should fire and which to keep. The loss of credibility makes it difficult for the administration to present a believable, reassuring account of its efforts at damage repair.
Third, the talent and expertise in this administration reside in a few (not all) Cabinet members. Denied competent help by grudge-holding aides in the White House and often kept out of the loop, however, Cabinet members are being set up to fail.
Fourth, the Trump family is of little help. Whether on Abrams or Mexico, Jared Kushner does not seem able to budge his father-in-law. Ivanka Trump’s interests seem to be specific (e.g., child care). Melania Trump does not play the role so many first ladies have as the president’s sagest adviser.
Fifth, Republicans leave the White House to its own devices at the GOP’s peril. If they are seen as enabling an incompetent and compromised president and refusing to conduct appropriate oversight, their days in the majority will be numbered. Long overdue are serious inquiries into Trump’s conflicts of interest, the emolument clause, his financial connections to Russia and his campaign’s communications during the campaign with Russian figures.
What decent and competent person at this point would walk into the West Wing, which seems more like the “Star Wars” bar scene with each passing day? There may still be public servants such as Abrams who are willing to help Cabinet secretaries succeed or to join Trump’s West Wing. Perhaps, as is rumored, retired Gen. David Petraeus will replace Flynn, provided Bannon is kept out of the NSC and Petraeus is reassured Trump is not a Russian patsy. If Trump is to turn around his sinking presidency, he no longer has the luxury of excluding qualified people who may have uttered critical words about him during the campaign. He cannot allow multiple power centers, each headed by a cutthroat aide who lacks governing experience. And he may need to quarantine Bannon, keeping him far from issues with serious international implications.
It is far from clear Trump is capable of accepting responsibility and changing his mode of operation. He’s relied on lies and chaos to get him where he is, but now that those fail him, he may find himself without the emotional and intellectual resources to succeed. In that case, we make not see any significant course correction until 2018 when voters have a chance to rethink their decision to put Trump and his cronies in the White House and spineless Republicans in the majority in both houses of Congress.