Less than a month into the new administration, President Trump security team has been plunged into "turmoil" following last night's unexpected resignation announcement by his now former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn. In some additional back story color, Flynn reportedly infuriated VP Pence by misleading him about the call, then not fully apologizing, the NYT reported and also added that Steve Bannon pushed for his resignation since Friday.
Flynn stepped down on Monday night over his phone conversations with Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak. In a statement announcing his resignation, the general said he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with the incomplete information” about the calls.
Flynn’s resignation comes at a delicate time for the president as Trump struggles to cement his national security apparatus, just as the president and his cabinet officials are preparing for a series of meetings and summits with foreign leaders in the coming months, starting this week in Europe, and followed by various trips abroad, mostly to Europe.
As reported last night, Trump is now contemplating to replace Flynn with retired Army Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, who had been Flynn’s chief of staff. Along with Kellogg, the White House is considering retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward and former CIA director David Petraeus as permanent replacements for Flynn. None of the three has a history with the president like Flynn’s, who was an early supporter and ardent campaigner during Trump’s improbable campaign for the White House.
First, the bad news: Flynn leaves as the U.S. confronts serious challenges on two strategic fronts: the Middle East and Asia, as Bloomberg notes. Trump has yet to define his plan for combating the Islamic State and other radical Islamists that he’s said are the No. 1 threat to the U.S. In Asia, North Korea has tested the new administration by launching a ballistic missile while Trump was meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. China also is asserting itself, forcing Trump to back down from the notion of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in dealing with the world’s second biggest economy.
Though Trump campaigned primarily on domestic issues, national security was a central element of his message and it’s been dominant in the early days of his presidency. Following on his meeting with Abe in Washington, Trump is set to meet on Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials, meanwhile, are heading to the annual Munich Security Conference at the end of the week, where European allies are desperate for any clues to Trump’s intentions and will be looking to divine what role the U.S. plans to play.
Then, some good news: Trump will hope to use Flynn’s departure to put an end to the questions about whether Flynn had improper contact with Russia. “This seemed inevitable when it became clear Flynn had misled Vice President Pence over the calls,” said Brendan Thomas-Noone, a research fellow at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre. “Trump’s administration needs to distance itself from the suspicion it has close links with Russia and this may give it some space.”
Possible replacements: If Trump taps Robert Harward it may further empower Defense Secretary James Mattis, under whom Harward served as a deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. Harward served on the National Security Council’s staff and at the National Counterterrorism Center under President George W. Bush. He has served as a Navy SEAL and commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harward currently is chief executive of Lockheed Martin United Arab Emirates.
On the other hand, Gen. Petraeus is well known as a retired four-star general lauded for his leadership in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But his ability to repair the reputation of Trump’s National Security Council may be compromised by another matter that brought him notoriety: a 2015 plea deal including two years of probation for a misdemeanor, after he shared classified documents with a biographer with whom he had an extramarital affair. The episode forced his resignation as CIA director under President Barack Obama. He was under consideration by Trump for the secretary of state job that ultimately went to Rex Tillerson.
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The Democrats, who have been calling for Flynn's resignation for the past week, are feeling further emboldened and will press Trump for more details. "The reality is General Flynn was unfit to be the National Security Advisor, and should have been dismissed three weeks ago," Representatives John Conyers of Michigan and Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top-ranking Democrats on the House Judiciary and Oversight committees, wrote in a joint statement.
"Now, we in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them, and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks," they added. "We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security." Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the top Foreign Affairs Committee Democrat, called for a “thorough, bipartisan investigation to get the complete picture of Russia’s interference” in the U.S. presidential election following Flynn’s resignation.”
Trump's team will be under a microscope following a WaPo report last night according to which a warning about Flynn's Russian connections was delivered to the White House counsel’s office by then acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Yates was concerned Flynn was potentially vulnerable to being "blackmailed by Russia." Trump fired Yates after she refused to defend his executive order banning travel from seven predominately Muslim nations.
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Meanwhile, early on Tuesday Russian lawmakers reacted with dismay and anger to U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation, calling it a sign that Donald Trump’s White House is driven by the same “paranoia” toward the Kremlin as previous presidencies.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov refused to comment, telling reporters on a conference call Tuesday that Flynn’s departure is an “internal matter” for the U.S. Peskov on Friday said reports that Flynn and Kislyak discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia late last year weren’t true.
“We would not like to comment on it in any way,” Peskov told journalists on Tuesday, when asked about Flynn’s resignation. “This is a domestic issue of the Americans and the Trump administration, not ours.”
Some Russian officials were more vocal about Flynn’s resignation than the Kremlin. “The resignation of Michael Flynn was probably the speediest for a national security advisor in all history. But the target is not Flynn, but rather relations with Russia,” Senator Aleksey Pushkov tweeted.
Additionally, senior Russian lawmakers said on Tuesday Flynn's resignation showed that efforts were being made to undermine Russian-U.S. relations.
"It's obvious that Flynn was forced to write the letter of resignation under a certain amount of pressure," Leonid Slutsky, head of the lower house of parliament's foreign affairs committee, was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency. "The target was Russia-U.S. relations, undermining confidence in the new U.S. administration," Slutsky said, without specifying who he thought was responsible.
The resignation is “a negative signal for establishing Russian-American dialogue,” Slutsky added according to Interfax.
Fellow lawmaker Konstantin Kosachev, who leads the upper house of parliament's international affairs committee, said the resignation could be a sign of growing anti-Russian feeling in the White House. "Either Trump has not gained the requisite independence and he is gradually being (not unsuccessfully) backed into a corner, or Russophobia has already infected the new administration also from top to bottom," Kosachev said on social media.
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The matter is far from over, with attention now turning to Trump's official statement on the matter which has yet to come. Meanwhile, reporters will bombard White House spokesman Sean Spicer with questions about what and when did Trump know and why he didn't act on it, with the main line of questioning focused on why was Flynn fired just now if the White House was aware of potential Russian ties for a month, and how long did Trump plan to keep Flynn on board. Also, attention will focus on whether Flynn acting on his own when he discussed the Russian sanctions with the ambassador, and whether he was authorized to have the conversation, which will then shift the spotlight to Trump's own allegations of close ties with the Kremlin.