Yet the situation didn't come to a head until the public disclosure last week of what Flynn says was his faulty recollection of the call — and specifically, the fact that it included talk about sanctions, which Flynn and Vice President Pence had both denied.
Which leads to the question: Was the White House concerned that Flynn had apparently lied to them — or at least done something he shouldn't have and failed to disclose it? Would it ever have taken corrective action if the situation hadn't been made public?
These are all fair questions, especially since the administration had, until late Monday, given no indication that Flynn's job was in jeopardy. Appearing on MSNBC early Monday evening, Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway even said the administration had “full confidence” in Flynn. Yet just minutes later, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump was “evaluating the situation.” Hours later, Flynn resigned.
It's a bit of a complex situation. So it's worth deconstructing with a timeline:
- Dec. 29: Flynn, a former lieutenant general who had been selected as Trump's national security adviser, speaks to Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Despite Flynn's later denial and the White House's later comments, he and Kislyak discuss sanctions and the possibility of relieving them once Trump is president — even as the Obama administration was announcing new sanctions for Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 election.
- Jan. 12: For the first time, Flynn's talks with the Russian ambassador are reported by Post columnist David Ignatius. Few details are known, but Ignatius notes that if the two discussed the sanctions, this could violate an obscure law known as the Logan Act, which prohibits unauthorized citizens from dealing in disputes with foreign governments.
- Jan. 13: In his first comments on the matter, Spicer says Flynn told him that he had exchanged text messages with Kislyak before they spoke on Dec. 28. (The date was later corrected to Dec. 29.) But Spicer said it was only to discuss logistics for a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump after Trump was sworn in as president. “That was it, plain and simple,” Spicer said.
- Jan. 14: Flynn assures Pence, who was then the vice president-elect, that the two of them didn't discuss sanctions, according to Pence.
- Jan. 15: Pence says on the Sunday shows that Flynn and Kislyak didn't discuss sanctions. “I talked to General Flynn yesterday, and the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to the new U.S. sanctions against Russia or the expulsion of diplomats,” Pence says on “Fox News Sunday.”
- Jan. 26: The Justice Department, then headed by acting attorney general Sally Yates (whom Trump would later dismiss for not defending his travel ban), informs White House counsel Don McGahn of Flynn's misleading statements. It also warns that they were so egregious that he could open himself up to Russian blackmail, given Russia knew he had mischaracterized the call to his superiors, according to Washington Post reporting. Spicer confirmed the specific date on Tuesday. “The first day that the Department of Justice … sought to notify White House counsel was January 26,” Spicer said. “The president was immediately informed of the situation.” Spicer said the White House didn't believe Flynn had violated the law. None of this was disclosed publicly at the time.
- Feb. 8: In an interview with The Post that would be published the following day, Flynn categorically denies having discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
- Feb. 9: The Post reports that Flynn did, in fact, discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador. In response, a spokesperson amends Flynn's denial, saying that he “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
- Feb. 10: Trump says in brief comments aboard Air Force One that he is unaware of The Post's report but that he will “look into” it.
- Around 5 p.m. Monday: Conway says the White House has “full confidence” in Flynn and seems to excuse him for having forgotten that he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
- Also around 5 p.m. Monday: Spicer issues a contradictory statement. “The president is evaluating the situation,” he said. “He's speaking to the vice president relative to the conversation the vice president had with Gen. Flynn, and also speaking to various other people about what he considers the single most important subject there is: our national security.”
- 8 p.m. Monday: The Post reports that the Justice Department had told the White House last month “that Flynn had so mischaracterized his communications with the Russian diplomat that he might be vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.”
- Shortly before 11 p.m. Monday: Flynn resigns.
- Tuesday morning: Conway says Flynn resigned voluntarily.
- Tuesday afternoon: Spicer, again contradicting Conway, says Trump requested the resignation: “Whether or not he actually misled the vice president was the issue, and that was ultimately what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn. That's it. Pure and simple, it was a matter of trust.”
A few questions on this:
- Was the administration planning to take any action based on the Justice Department's late-January news of Flynn having misled them?
- Trump said he hadn't heard about The Post story on Flynn having misled his administration as recently as Feb. 10. Did the White House counsel really not inform the president about what the Justice Department had said? Or was it perhaps disregarded once Yates, an Obama appointee, was dismissed in a separate matter?
- Do White House officials truly accept Flynn's contention that he simply forgot about discussing sanctions? Conway's comments Monday suggest they do. But Russian sanctions were one of the biggest stories in U.S. foreign policy at the time.
- Even if Flynn did truly forget, would it be okay that he discussed something he wasn't supposed to during the phone call?
Much will play out in the hours ahead. For now, though, Flynn's resignation probably won't do anything to tamp down questions about what the White House knew when and just how seriously it was taking the matter.