There are many mysteries about the motives of President Trump and former senior officials in connection with Russia and the ensuing Russia investigation but none so important as these three:

  • If Michael Flynn was authorized to speak to Russian officials about sanctions during the transition, why did he lie to the FBI?
  • If Trump thought Flynn’s contacts with Russia were so innocuous, why say to then-FBI Director James B. Comey (as Comey has testified), “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
  • If Trump, as stated in a tweet from the @realDonaldTrump Twitter account that Trump’s lawyer now says he wrote, knew Flynn had lied to the FBI, a serious crime, was his pressuring and then firing of Comey flat-out obstruction of justice?

Let’s take these in order.

First, the New York Times reports that senior foreign policy transition figure K.T. McFarland was intimately involved with the outreach to Russia during the transition:

On Dec. 29, a transition adviser to Mr. Trump, K. T. McFarland, wrote in an email to a colleague that sanctions announced hours before by the Obama administration in retaliation for Russian election meddling were aimed at discrediting Mr. Trump’s victory. The sanctions could also make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote in the emails obtained by The Times.

This seems to suggest that the campaign was seeking to undermine sanctions because it might drive questions about the Trump presidency’s legitimacy if Trump later lifted sanctions against Russia (which invaded Ukraine and committed war crimes in Syria, among other things). The bigger question here is why he was so intent on lifting them. (Was he concerned Russia had something on him?) The spectacle of an incoming president trying to undermine the outgoing president’s foreign policy brings to mind Richard Nixon, who communicated through channels with the Vietnamese not to strike a peace deal with President Lyndon Johnson because Nixon would give them a better deal after being elected president.

This outreach before Trump was president was all arguably in violation of the Logan Act, which prevents private diplomacy, but again, if all that was going on was an attempt to smooth the way for the incoming administration Flynn would have little or no reason to lie. That raises several possibilities, including: Flynn had an irrational fear of the Logan Act; Flynn knew there were other suspicious Russia contacts the FBI might find; or the president told him to lie. There are likely some other explanations, but the good thing is Flynn will tell us — and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

That brings us to the second mystery, namely why Trump wanted Comey to lay off Flynn. Trump’s not known for loyalty to aides so one can take an educated guess that Trump thought Flynn would reveal something damaging about him. Was that “something” simply directing conversations during the transition? (Trump says that wasn’t wrong, so that would not seem to be a big deal.) Alternatively, that “something” may have been knowledge of more extensive Russia contacts or Trump’s own relationship with Russia.

As for whether Trump knew Flynn lied to the FBI, Trump’s personal attorney, John Dowd, claimed he wrote it. If Dowd wrote it, was he still confused as to the president’s reasons for firing Flynn after all this time, or did he let the cat out of the bag in error? If Trump actually wrote it, he has given Mueller a new weapon: Trump attempted to obstruct justice because he knew Flynn committed a serious crime (lying to the FBI) when he tried to get Comey to back off. A troubling third possibility exists: Trump doesn’t know what he knew and when he knew it, so his tweet is inaccurate about his own state of mind. His erratic behavior, avalanche of insulting emails and overhyped rhetoric have given some Republicans pause to consider whether Trump has “lost it.” Ironically, Trump’s personal deficits may provide a defense of sorts to him.

Taking a step back, one has to believe Trump and his top aides were acting suspiciously and lying about something that was not a problem or, instead, that they were deathly afraid something else about the Trump-Russia relationship was going to come out. Trump’s increasingly hysterical tweets reflect someone who understands at some level that he’s in personal, legal and political peril.  (Trump’s ongoing, vicious attacks on the FBI make little strategic sense, but they serve as an outlet for Trump’s rising anxiety, one suspects.) A third possibility is that Trump was and still is irrational and suffering from chronically poor memory about his own actions. Of course, the truth may be a mixture of some or all of these.