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What you need to know about the firing of Michael Flynn and why it matters for Trump

On Monday, President Trump fired his national security advisor, Michael Flynn. On Wednesday, he said Flynn had been “treated very, very unfairly by the media.” Here are some questions and answers about why Flynn was dismissed and why the issue continues to dog Trump:

What did Flynn do?

Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and Press Secretary Sean Spicer about conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, allowing all three to make repeated false public statements. He did not tell Pence the truth until after the facts were revealed by the Washington Post last week. On Tuesday, Spicer said Trump had known about Flynn’s inaccurate statements for nearly three weeks and had fired him because of an “eroding level of trust.”

Trump makes his first comments about Flynn's dismissal, and he blames the media and leakers »

Why does anyone care what Flynn said to the Russian ambassador?

Two issues are at play here. On the day Flynn and Kislyak spoke, Dec. 29, President Obama had imposed sanctions on Russia to punish Vladimir Putin’s government for its interference in the presidential election. Some people who have read the transcript of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak believe that he tried to undermine Obama’s policy. More broadly, Democrats allege that people associated with Trump may have colluded with Russian officials to try to influence the election outcome. Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak have revived attention to those charges.

Wait. There’s a transcript of Flynn’s conversation? Why?

U.S. intelligence officials routinely conduct surveillance of Russian diplomats. The FBI found Flynn’s call in reviewing Kislyak’s conversations. 

When did Trump decide to fire Flynn?

As late as Monday morning, Flynn gave an interview to the Daily Caller, a conservative outlet, in which he said that Trump had “expressed confidence” in him and told him to “go out and talk more.” That afternoon, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn.

A few hours later, Flynn was fired.

The decision appears to have come only after the Post contacted the White House on Monday afternoon to seek comment on another article that detailed law enforcement officials’ attempt to warn Trump weeks earlier that Flynn might be vulnerable to blackmail by Russia because of his false statements.

Timeline: What we know about the events leading to Michael Flynn's resignation »

What does the timing indicate?

Trump’s statement Wednesday that the media had treated Flynn unfairly, combined with the timeline, indicates that the president felt he was pushed into firing Flynn, not because he had misled his colleagues, but because news organizations were making that fact public.

Is anyone else in trouble or at risk?

Some conservative media are accusing Priebus of having engineered Flynn’s departure. The Breitbart News website, for example, formerly headed by Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s strategist, accused Priebus of having tried to protect Democratic “sleeper cells” in the government.

And Pence was damaged by the evidence that Trump and others kept him in the dark about the situation. As his spokesman said Tuesday, Pence learned that Flynn had misled him only after that fact was revealed in the media. Trump had known about it for two weeks by that point.

Is the administration at war with itself?

Bannon insists that he and Priebus are friends. But for more than three weeks, White House officials have been blaming each other for missteps, with different factions providing their conflicting accounts to reporters. That has contributed to what Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called “dysfunction” in the White House.

Does Flynn’s firing end the matter?

Probably not. FBI agents interviewed Flynn about his contacts with Kislyak. If agents conclude that he was untruthful, that could be a serious problem. Moreover, the bureau is conducting a wider inquiry into contacts between people close to Trump and Russian intelligence officials. In addition, two congressional committees are also investigating.

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What’s the FBI looking at?

No one outside the bureau really knows except in broad outline. FBI Director James B. Comey has declined to tell even senior members of Congress anything about the investigation. FBI agents have examined contacts that some people close to Trump had with Russian officials, but whether they have found anything improper is not publicly known.

What about the congressional investigations?

The House and Senate intelligence committees are each ginning up investigations into Russian actions during the presidential election. Democrats want a full investigation into any contacts that the Trump campaign may have had with Russian officials. Republicans have committed to a more limited investigation, but their resistance to the Democratic demands seems to be weakening. 

How much danger do these investigations pose to Trump?

In the short run, the big danger is lost time and focus. The administration is already under pressure from Congress to come up with a plan to replace Obamacare, for example, or a tax reform proposal. Delay has made accomplishing either of those GOP goals harder as opponents mobilize. Most of the top positions in the government remain unfilled. Even the most smoothly functioning White House can only handle a few issues at a time, and this is not the most smoothly functioning White House.

Longer term, a lot depends on what, if anything, the investigations turn up. So far, there is no public evidence that Trump or people around him did anything improper in connection with Russia.

David.Lauter@latimes.com

For more on Politics and Policy, follow me @DavidLauter

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