Michael Flynn’s ouster as President Trump’s national security advisor over his postelection conversations about sanctions with Russia's ambassador did not unfold with the cold efficiency of typical Trump axings on reality TV.
Trump was warned weeks ago that Flynn had misled White House officials about his phone calls with Russian envoy Sergey Kislyak, but the president took no action until “an eroding level of trust” and “a series of other questionable incidents” prompted him to act, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday.
Nor did Flynn’s forced resignation late Monday night, after a weekend of conflicting signals from the White House, end the broader drama over Trump and Russia.
Instead, Trump’s decision to jettison Flynn after only 24 days in office has deepened questions about current and former Trump aides’ dealings with Moscow and about Trump’s often-stated pledge to forge closer ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an autocrat most U.S. lawmakers consider an implacable foreign adversary.
Almost since he launched his insurgent presidential campaign two years ago, Trump and several key advisors, including Flynn, have been dogged by allegations of murky ties to Putin’s government that seemed to produce favors for both sides.
They included a push by Trump’s campaign aides at the Republican National Convention last summer to water down GOP criticism of Russia’s armed intervention in Ukraine and revelations that Trump’s former campaign chairman had lobbied for a pro-Russia strongman.
More importantly, Moscow apparently tried to help Trump in return. Last month, before Trump took office, the top U.S. intelligence agencies publicly assessed that the Kremlin’s leaders had used hacked emails and other tactics in a deliberate effort to help Trump win in November.
Trump has consistently denied getting any Russian help or of being in debt to Russian banks or oligarchs for his real estate empire. He also angrily denied unproven salacious allegations in a widely circulated dossier, produced by a former British intelligence officer, that said he could be blackmailed to do Moscow’s bidding.
But Trump has lavishly praised Putin in speeches and on Twitter, and dismissed warnings even from other Republicans of getting too close to the Russian leader who has aligned with Iran in the war in Syria, seized Crimea at gunpoint and threatened NATO allies in Eastern and Central Europe.
Flynn’s departure only worsened this split within Trump’s party, as more Republicans joined Democrats on Tuesday in calling for a broad congressional inquiry into Moscow’s attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election as well as its relations with Flynn and other Trump advisors.
“I think that we should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of this process, nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned," Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Tuesday in an interview with KTRS, a St. Louis radio station.
With Republicans in control of both houses of Congress, Trump can still count on GOP leaders running interference for him, at least for now. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) dismissed Democrats’ calls for an independent commission with broad powers to probe deeper into links between Russia and Trump’s team.
The congressional inquiries parallel a separate FBI investigation of possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia.
It was this investigation that led FBI agents to question Flynn shortly after Trump’s inauguration about his phone calls with Kislyak, on which the U.S. had eavesdropped as part of routine monitoring of the Russian diplomat.
The multiple unfolding investigations will make it difficult for Trump to pivot away from questions about his links to Moscow, adding to the turmoil in a White House battling a series of self-inflicted errors on immigration, ethics and other issues.
It will also be harder for Trump to fulfill his stated goal of joining forces with Putin to defeat Islamic State, a plan that the Pentagon and intelligence agencies already view with considerable skepticism given Moscow’s record in Syria, where Russian-backed forces have repeatedly bombed schools, hospitals and other civilian targets.
“What seems to be the case is that Russia for quite some time has invested in Donald Trump or the people around him,” said Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official who now is executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington think tank. “We just don’t know the truth. As long as those questions are out there, it has a corrosive effect.”
For now, the turmoil has pushed the White House to finally do what Trump had previously declined to: harshly criticize Russia’s activities in Ukraine and demand that Russia withdraw from Crimea.
"President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea," Spicer told reporters Tuesday. "At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to get along with Russia."
The jettisoning of Flynn closely resembled Trump’s decision last August to fire Paul Manafort, his first campaign chairman, after disclosures that Manafort’s consulting firm had lobbied for former Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovich’s ruling party.
Although the Manafort firm’s work for Yanukovich, a Putin ally who took refuge in Russia after he was forced from office in 2014, was widely known, it wasn’t until August that Trump removed him and elevated Stephen K. Bannon, a pugilistic conservative-media honcho who is now one of his closest White House aides.
Trump last month appeared to deflect any more questions about his supposed ties to Russia after a 35-page dossier of supposedly compromising personal information was made public in January by BuzzFeed. Most of the material could not be proved.
Trump angrily castigated the dossier as “fake news” and blamed U.S. intelligence agencies for leaking it — an untrue accusation that heightened the already testy relationship between the president-elect and the intelligence community.
But with the FBI and congressional committees still investigating any potentially improper ties to Moscow, the Trump White House now faces the possibility that other credible details — like the transcripts of Flynn’s calls to the Russian diplomat — will dribble out, keeping the young administration on the defensive.
Democrats say they plan to press for more details about whether Flynn told Kislyak in December that Trump would review — or even remove — the economic sanctions that President Obama imposed on Moscow in retaliation for intervening in the U.S. election.
A former senior intelligence official familiar with the transcripts said Flynn urged the ambassador not to overreact to the sanctions, warning that any Russian retaliation would make it harder for the Trump administration to ease the pressure when it took office in a few weeks.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview that he was seeking transcripts of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, which were recorded by U.S. intelligence.
Schiff said he hoped to learn whether Flynn was acting alone — or possibly on behalf of Trump, which the White House has denied.
“I think Trump has a lot of explaining to do,” Schiff said.