When Michael Flynn sat down for dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2015, it triggered a series of events that may bring down the Donald Trump presidency. The fast escalating Russia scandal has become a window into how traitorous and deeply corrupt Trump is, how he is incapable of defending America and soils everything he touches, as well as revealing that while he demands absolute loyalty, he does not reciprocate, and has hung his vice president out to dry.
The Flynn-Putin dinner meeting was no secret. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, has acknowledged that he was paid by the Russian government to give a speech focused on radical Islam, something he had knowledge of because of his national security background, including two years as President Obama's director of the Defense Intelligence Agency before being dismissed, as well as a well documented case of Islamaphobia.
Flynn's gab-and-grub visit to Moscow on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of Russia Today, a Kremlin-run television propaganda network on which he has frequently appeared, probably violated a constitutional emoluments clause prohibiting former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without the consent of Congress. But that is so much small beer. What is of substantially greater consequence is what happened next: A series of events involving Moscow, Trump surrogates and the presidential election that call into question what Trump knew when and - most importantly - to what extent he may have stage managed those events.
Trump, if nothing else, has proved himself incapable of deep thinking in his three-plus weeks in office, so it is somewhat difficult to imagine that he had a direct hand in Russia-backed hacking of Democratic interests and orchestration of a false news campaign that, with an able assist from maladroit FBI Director James Comey, threw the election to Trump, although he publicly praised them.
Still, his (unusually small) fingerprints are all over phone conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergi Kislyak on December 29 in the waning days of Obama's presidency, as well as other contacts that onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other campaign staffers and Trump business associates had with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
The contacts, made as Trump was repeatedly praising Putin, were unearthed by U.S. intelligence agencies seeking to learn whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians on hacking and other efforts to influence an election in which Trump lost the popular vote but won the Electoral College.
The timing of the Flynn-Kislyak conversations are of paramount importance in understanding the gravity of the scandal that led to Flynn's resignation on Monday night as Trump's national security chief after a mere 24 days and why concerted White House efforts to paint Flynn's departure as a result of him "lying" to Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations are so much smoke to obscure the real reason.
Early on December 29, acting on the unanimous conclusion of U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow had actively sought to influence the election, Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed down two stateside Russian retreats used for that country's diplomats and spies. The Kremlin quickly made it clear that Putin would retaliate in kind.
No such thing happened.
Instead, early on December 30 the Kremlin posted a statement on its Web site stating that "although we have the right to retaliate . . . we will plan our further steps to restore Russia-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration."
Flynn's conversations with the ambassador - and there were several of them on December 29 while Flynn was vacationing at a resort in the Dominican Republic with his wife - took place after Obama's announcement and before Moscow's surprisingly tepid response, and it is probable that Trump instructed Flynn to signal Kislyak that the new president would ease the sanctions. It turns out that the conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador were wiretapped as part of routine electronic surveillance of the communications of foreign officials, and the Januay 29 conversations were only the latest of a series between the men before and after the November 8 election.
Obama administration officials, aware of and concerned about Flynn's earlier contacts with the ambassador and other Russian officials, did not give him advance notice of the new sanctions, as would have been customary. The wiretaps probably would have received little attention had it not for Putin's baffling refusal to counter Obama's sanctions with his own.
A transcript of the wiretaps was forwarded to Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, who briefed James R. Clapper Jr., Obama's director of national intelligence, and then CIA Director John Brennan, both of whom urged her to contact White House counsel Don McGahn. FBI Director Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau's ongoing investigation of Trump ties to Russia. He relented on January 23 after Trump press secretary Sean Spicer tried to minimize the importance of Flynn's outreach to Kislyak and claimed there only had been a single call.
Yates, accompanied by an unidentified senior intelligence official, informed McGahn on January 26 of the wiretap's explosive contents and warned him Flynn was potentially vulnerable to blackmail because he had misled Pence and other senior Trump administration officials about the nature of his communications. The FBI also questioned Flynn about this time regarding the communications because of concerns he had violated the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens - which he was when he spoke to Kislyak - from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes with the U.S.
McGahn briefed Trump immediately following Yates's warning, putting the lie to the White House's incredible claim that Flynn was forced out only after after Trump learned of his repeated misrepresentations when he should have been summarily fired nearly three weeks earlier. Pence was intentionally kept out of the loop until February 9 when his own repeated inquiries finally unearthed what had happened. So much for Trump's much vaunted loyalty to his vice president.
The plot thickens.
Trump, of course, fired Yates on January 30 because of her refusal to enforce his Muslim ban. He also refused to act on the information after she provided him and went so far as to yet again praise Putin, as he had repeatedly during the campaign, in a pre-Super Bowl Sunday interview with Bill O'Reilly of when reminded by the Fox News commentator that the Russian president was "a killer." Flynn, who repeatedly denied discussing sanctions with Kislyak and was still sitting in on security briefings as of late Monday, was only shown the door after a leak about Yates's warning, which further cements the view that Flynn was acting with Trump's consent and the president was willing to protect Flynn at the expense and to the eventual embarrassment of Pence.
Putin, meanwhile, was shaking up the FSB, the main state security agency, in an effort to identify moles who may have cooperated with an ongoing investigation by U.S. intelligence agencies of Russian election meddling and possible ties to Trump. One former top FSB official - Oleg Erovinkin - died on December 26 under suspicious circumstances in his car on a Moscow street.
The plot thickens some more.
Erovinkin was indeed a likely mole, and was so identified by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele, who compiled and shared with the FBI an explosive dossier on Trump-Kremlin ties and compromising material that Russian operatives allegedly had collected on the future president as possible blackmail material. Steele cut off contact with the FBI in October because he was said to be frustrated by the bureau's slow progress in investigating the ties, and then disappeared.
The U.S. intelligence probe, insulated by what remains of the firewall between the CIA, FBI and NSA and the White House, continues.
The agencies are said to have corroborated the less salacious (read Trump consorting with Kremlin-chaperoned prostitutes at a Moscow hotel) aspects of the Steele dossier, including the involvement of Carter Page, a member of Trump's foreign policy team during his campaign. Page is said to have met with Erovinkin's former boss in July 2016 to discuss lifting earlier Obama administration sanctions in the event of a Trump victory in exchange for a stake in a shell company associated with Rosneft, a huge government-owned oil company.
Page resigned from the Trump campaign, as had campaign chairman Manafort, who was accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in the Ukraine and U.S.
The Republican Party had removed anti-Russian language from its convention platform regarding the conflict in Ukraine while Manafort was still running the campaign, while Trump memorably claimed during a presidential debate that Russia had not necessarily hacked Hillary Clinton-related emails, saying "It could also be lots of other people. It could be someone sitting on a bed that weighs 400 pounds."
The White House has yet to comment on the latest developments in the scandal except for press secretary Spicer, who has turned contradicting himself into an art and continues to stand by Trump's earlier and now discredited claims that nobody from his campaign had contact with Russian officials before the election. The administration is also trying to float the notion that Flynn "had gone rogue" through manufactured leaks, but no one in the media with a modicum of sense is buying that, while Trump on Wednesday fell back on his shopworn "it's fake news" canard.
The Russia scandal is but one of several crises for Trump.
The Office of Government Ethics recommended on Tuesday that top aide Kellyanne Conway be disciplined for encouraging the public to buy clothes from the Ivanka Trump line, while there is concern over the lack of security protocols at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, where club members photographed the president and senior staff reading security documents on their phones on the club's dining terrace on Saturday night.
(FBI Director Comey also is appropriately back in the crosshairs. Howcum he was all over Hillary Clinton's ass during the campaign but never said boo about the far more troubling ties between Trump and his campaign and business associates and Russian interests?)
Top Republican senators, clearly fatigued by Trump's shockingly inept start and the deep dysfunction of his administration, say that Congress should look into the Flynn affair, including calling him to testify. That is not adequate, and if it is confirmed that Flynn indeed lied, he should face a felony charge and criminal trial. Then there is the reality that loyalty to the president matters more than loyalty to country.
"Who's in charge?" asked Senator John McCain. No one, least of all the president, is in charge.
Still, don't expect a top-to-bottom investigation of the president's longstanding ties to Moscow, let alone all of the contacts his campaign and business associates had with senior intelligence officials, even though it is becoming harder by the day to defend his conduct and what has quickly become a very public humbling. That just isn't going to happen so long as the president is useful to the GOP, as in validating their agenda and signing it into law.
Yet there is a ticking time bomb here.
The damage caused by Russian meddling already is done, but Trump's capacity to do further harm is immense. If it turns out that there is clear evidence that Trump is indeed beholden to America's one-time Cold War rival, which for 70 years the Republican Party viewed as the global Satan, all bets are off and he finally would be viewed as the traitor he is.
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POINTS MEMO AND WASHINGTON POST.
PHOTOGRAPH FROM RUSSIA TODAY NETWORK.