What the Flynn debacle tells us about the Trump presidency
It wasn’t long ago that Michael Flynn, who resigned as US National Security Adviser Monday night, was seen as giving struggling presidential candidate Donald Trump some much-needed legitimacy.
Gone after 24 days in his role, Flynn is the victim of his own mistakes — not least being less-than-truthful to senior administration officials, including the vice president, about what he said to the Russian ambassador shortly before inauguration.
It’s still early days for the forty-fifth president. But more than any other story so far, Flynn’s saga tells us some important things. Those in Washington and beyond, particularly in Moscow, should take notice.
For Trump, Russia is now toxic.
If there was ever a secret conspiracy between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump — or simply those around him — to shape events in Washington, it has already run off the rails.
Very few people believe anything Russia might have done — even hacking Democratic National Party emails — was enough to swing the election in Trump’s favor. But the suggestion of an improper link is now ubiquitous, and it’s not going away.
The truth may matter less than perception. Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador, prior to Trump’s inauguration, were unorthodox. His business dealings in Moscow have also fueled rumors that, even more so than the president, Flynn was somehow ‘compromised’. But given the lingering suspicions surrounding Trump’s relationship with Putin, the Trump administration cannot afford to look ‘weak’ — and certainly not manipulated — on anything to do with Russia.
For the Trump White House, no one is untouchable. (Except perhaps the president.)
Flynn was always a controversial figure — and his endorsement of the Trump campaign hardly made him less so. Even at the Defense Intelligence Agency, he had many detractors, including those who accused him of making up ‘Flynn facts’ to support his arguments when he needed them. The sight of him leading anti-Hillary Clinton chants of ‘Lock her up’ was enough to persuade some of America’s most respected former military officers to state publicly that former generals should stay out of politics.
But for all his enemies — and his extreme views on the ‘dangers’ of Islam — he still had fans within the intelligence and security community and beyond.
In the White House, Flynn was eclipsed almost immediately by Defense Secretary and former Marine James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis. An asset during the campaign, Flynn became almost immediately a liability.
It’s a lesson others in the administration — from White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to more comfortably ensconced figures such as chief strategist Stephen Bannon or Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — should consider.
The Trump White House could yet become a ‘Game of Thrones’-style political bloodbath. At the very least, everyone is leaking.
And they seem unlikely to stop. Priebus may be next in line for the chop, with a Trump family friend, Christopher Ruddy, telling journalists this weekend that the chief of staff was in ‘way over his head’ and should be removed.
That was during an on-the-record interview. More broadly, political appointees and career government officials alike appear to be leaking a colossal number of insights and snippets of gossip to the media, particularly the New York Times, Washington Post and Politico.
The result is a portrayal of a White House in chaos, where no one can figure out how to turn on the lights, the president is unpredictable and isolated and everyone is at each other’s throats. It’s probably an exaggeration — but it must be infuriating for Trump in particular, and may become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
It’s not (quite) a ‘post-truth’ world. Provable lies can be fatal.
What Flynn actually said to the Russian ambassador wasn’t what doomed him, it was the perception that he lied — most specifically to Vice President Mike Pence. Flynn may have been undone by the fact that US intelligence agencies were, as usual, monitoring calls in and out of the Russian Embassy and were able to provide the administration with transcripts.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he ‘inadvertently’ briefed Pence with ‘incomplete information’ regarding the calls. The result was that Pence publicly announced Flynn had not mentioned sanctions in his Russian discussions — something that was simply not true.
It’s an awkward situation for the White House, particularly because the president has shown himself to be an equally unreliable witness. His attempts to inflate the number of people who attended his inauguration have already hurt his reputation — and weakened his position when it comes to persuading others to tell the truth.
What Flynn has demonstrated, however, is that there are limits to what you can get away with. Misleading the vice president or other senior officials can be fatal. The president can get away with more than anyone else — not least because he is so difficult to remove — but even he might struggle if found to have lied to Congress or the American people on something important.
Vice President Pence is in a strong, perhaps vital position.
Within the Beltway, Vice President Pence is seen as the real winner.
Relations between US presidents and their deputies vary widely — George Washington’s vice president, John Adams, described the role as ‘the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.’ Sometimes, however, the pressures of office can bring them extremely close — Barack Obama said Joe Biden had become like a ‘brother’.
The current president and the evangelical Christian Pence feel like an odd couple for that kind of relationship. In this debacle, however, Trump sided with his vice president over a previously close adviser.
Like Trump — and unlike others such as Flynn — Pence can only be pushed from office by impeachment. And if the president does fall by the wayside this term, Pence could inherit everything.
*Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.