WASHINGTON – The storm over national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia made his situation “unsustainable,” prompting Flynn to resign less than a month into the new Trump administration, a top White House official said Tuesday.
Flynn’s ouster appeared to be driven more by the idea that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials than by the content of his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Still, the matter deepened questions about President Donald Trump’s friendly posture toward Russia.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Today” show that Flynn “knew he’d become a lightning rod” and made the decision to resign. Conway’s comments came one day after she said the president had “full confidence” in Flynn.
Flynn’s resignation — which one White House official said was offered at the request of the president — came after reports that the Justice Department had alerted the White House weeks ago that there were contradictions between Trump officials’ public accounting of the Russia contacts and what intelligence officials knew to be true based on routine recordings of communications with foreign officials who are in the U.S.
The revelations were another destabilizing blow to an administration that has already suffered a major legal defeat on immigration, botched the implementation of a signature policy and stumbled through a string of embarrassing public relations missteps.
White House officials haven’t said when Trump was told of the Justice Department warning or why Flynn had been allowed to stay on the job with access to a full range of intelligence materials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime Russia critic, said Congress needs to know what Flynn discussed with the ambassador and why.
“The idea that he did this on his own without any direction is a good question to ask,” Graham added.
Pence and others, apparently relying on information from Flynn, had said the national security adviser did not discuss U.S. economic sanctions against Russia with the Russian envoy during the American presidential transition. Flynn later told officials the sanctions may have been discussed, the latest change in his account of his pre-inauguration discussions with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Such conversations would breach diplomatic protocol and possibly violate the Logan Act, a law aimed at keeping private citizens from conducting U.S. diplomacy. The Justice Department had warned the White House late last month that Flynn could be at risk for blackmail because of contradictions between his public depictions of the calls and what intelligence officials.
Asked whether the president had been aware that Flynn might have planned to discuss sanctions with the Russian envoy, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “No, absolutely not.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump made the right decision in asking Flynn to step down.
“You cannot have the national security adviser misleading the vice president and others,” Ryan said.
Trump, who has been conspicuously quiet about Flynn’s standing for several days, took to Twitter Tuesday morning and said the “real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” He ignored questions about Flynn from reporters during an education event at the White House Tuesday morning.
Trump named retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg as the acting national security adviser. Kellogg had previously been appointed the National Security Council chief of staff and advised Trump during the campaign. Trump is also considering former CIA Director David Petraeus and Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a U.S. Navy SEAL, for the post, according to a senior administration official.
Kellogg convened a brief meeting of the National Security Council staff Tuesday morning and urged them to continue with business as usual. Staffers have been told that Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News analyst, is expected to stay at the White House.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Kislyak on the day the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, as well as at other times during the transition.
The officials and two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the Justice Department warnings on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Washington Post was the first to report the communication between former acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, and the Trump White House. The Post also first reported last week that Flynn had indeed spoken about sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Trump never voiced public support for Flynn after that initial report but continued to keep his national security adviser close. Flynn was part of Trump’s daily briefing Monday and sat in on his calls with foreign leaders, as well as his discussions with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Kremlin had confirmed that Flynn was in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions. On Tuesday, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defense of Flynn.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, said in a post on Facebook that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is “not just paranoia but something even worse.” Kosachev also expressed frustration at the Trump administration:
“Either Trump hasn’t found the necessary independence and he’s been driven into a corner… or russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom,” he said.
Kosachev’s counterpart at the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, Alexei Pushkov, tweeted shortly after the announcement that “it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Flynn’s resignation “does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians.” He said the White House has yet to be forthcoming about whether Flynn was acting at the behest of the president or others.
Fired by one American commander-in-chief for insubordination, Flynn delivered his resignation to another.
The White House said Tuesday that President Trump asked for the resignation of his national security adviser, a hard-charging, feather-ruffling retired lieutenant general who just three weeks into the new administration had put himself in the center of a controversy. Flynn resigned late Monday.
At issue was Flynn’s contact with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington. Flynn and the Russian appear to have discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia late last year, raising questions about whether he was freelancing on foreign policy while President Barack Obama was still in office and whether he misled Trump officials about the calls.
The uncertainty about his future had deepened Monday when the White House issued a statement saying that Trump is “evaluating the situation” surrounding Flynn. In his resignation letter, Flynn said he held numerous calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the transition and gave “incomplete information” about those discussions to Vice President Pence.
The center of a storm is a familiar place for Flynn. His military career ended when Obama dismissed him as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. Flynn has said he was pushed out for holding tougher views than Obama about Islamic extremism. But a former senior U.S. official said the firing was for insubordination, after Flynn failed to follow guidance from superiors.
Out of government, he disappeared into the murky world of midlevel defense contractors and international influence peddlers. In December 2015, he appeared at a Moscow banquet headlined by Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2016, Flynn, a lifelong if apolitical Democrat, became a trusted and eager confidant of Trump, joining anti-Hillary Clinton campaign chants of “Lock Her Up” and tweeting that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.”
As national security adviser, Flynn required no Senate confirmation vote or public vetting of his record.
The Washington Post and other U.S. newspapers, citing current and former U.S. officials, reported last week that Flynn made explicit references to U.S. sanctions on Russia in conversations with Putin’s ambassador, Sergey Kislyak. One of the calls took place on Dec. 29, the day Obama announced new penalties against Russia’s top intelligence agencies over allegations they meddled in the election with the objective of helping Trump win.
While it’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office, the repeated contacts just as the U.S. was pulling the trigger on sanctions suggests Trump’s team might have helped shape Russia’s response. They also contradicted denials about such sanctions discussions by several Trump administration officials, including the vice president. Some Democratic lawmakers want a congressional investigation.
For days, Trump had been unusually quiet on the matter. While his aides declared the president has confidence in Flynn, Trump privately told associates he was troubled by the situation. White House press secretary Spicer said Tuesday that Trump requested Flynn’s resignation because of an erosion of trust.
Flynn’s sparkling military resume had included key assignments at home and abroad, and high praise from superiors.
The son of an Army veteran of World War II and the Korean War, Flynn was commissioned as a second lieutenant in May 1981. He started in intelligence and eventually rose to senior positions, including intelligence chief for U.S. Central Command.
Ian McCulloh, a Johns Hopkins data science specialist, became a Flynn admirer while working as an Army lieutenant colonel in Afghanistan in 2009. At the time, Flynn ran intelligence for the U.S.-led international coalition in Kabul and was pushing for more creative approaches to targeting Taliban networks, including use of data mining and social network analysis, according to McCulloh.
“He was pushing for us to think out of the box and try to leverage technology better and innovate,” McCulloh said, crediting Flynn for improving the effectiveness of U.S. targeting. “A lot of people didn’t like it because it was different.”
After leaving the military, Flynn plunged into civilian life and moved to capitalize on his military and intelligence connections and experience.
He opened his own consulting firm, Flynn Intelligence Group, assembling a crew of former armed forces veterans with expertise in cyber, logistics and surveillance. One “team” member was lobbyist Robert Kelley.
Kelley proved a central player in the Flynn Group’s decision to help a Turkish businessman tied to Turkey’s government. At the same time that Flynn was advising Trump on national security matters, Kelley was lobbying legislators on behalf of businessman Ekim Alptekin’s firm between mid-September and December last year, lobbying documents show.
It was an odd match. Flynn stirred controversy with dire warnings about Islam, calling it a “political ideology” that “definitely hides behind being a religion.” But his alarms apparently didn’t extend to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government as it cracked down on dissent and jailed thousands of opponents, including many secular Turks, after a failed coup last summer.