Last Valentine’s Day, I wrote what I think is a very strong piece explaining why I didn’t believe the official story that the Intelligence Community forced Michael Flynn out because they were concerned he could be blackmailed by the Russians over his December 29th communications with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. It’s worth rereading now less for its prescience than for helping us get back into the atmosphere that existed in Washington DC at that time. Why is this desirable? For starters, people have forgotten that the IC forced Flynn out. What people seem to remember and report is that Mike Pence forced Flynn out, which was at best a cover story at the time.
Here’s another reminder about the setting in which this all went down. The first we heard about Micheal Flynn having communications with Ambassador Kislyak came in a David Ignatius column on January 12th, entitled Why did Obama dawdle on Russia’s hacking?
The hacking story was red-hot for several reasons. First, the Intelligence Community had released a declassified report on January 6th called Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution. Then, on January 10th, BuzzFeed released the Steele Dossier, including all its salacious allegations. People wanted to know why the Obama administration hadn’t done more to protect our election from this kind of interference.
They also felt like this information cast doubt on the legitimacy of Trump’s victory, and one of the things that particularly struck people at the time was Trump’s reticence to acknowledge or respect the Intelligence Community’s findings that Russia was responsible for the hacks on the DNC, John Podesta and other individuals and Democratic institutions.
Going all the way back to mid-June 2016, the same day that Crowdstrike released a statement implicating the Russians in the DNC hacks, the Trump campaign risibly accused the Democrats of hacking themselves. After the Intelligence Community said on September 5th that they were investigating “a broad covert Russian operation in the United States to sow public distrust,” Trump went on the RT cable news network and said it was “probably unlikely” Putin was behind the hacks.
This continued during the debates when Trump refused to accept Russia’s involvement, and it didn’t change after October 7th when the DHS and DNI released a statement about Russian efforts to “interfere with the US election process.” When, on December 29th, President Obama announced he was expelling 35 Russians and placing sanctions on nine Russian institutions and individuals, Trump seemed annoyed and said he thought it was time to “move on.”
Even after emerging from a January 6th intelligence briefing on the subject with John Brennan, James Clapper and James Comey, Trump could do no better than say, “Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations…There was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
In fact, it wasn’t until a January 11th press conference, the day before Ignatius’s column appeared, that Trump finally acknowledged Russia’s authorship of the hacks.
So, this was how things looked and some indication of Trump’s mindset when the news broke that Michael Flynn had been in secret communication with the Russian ambassador. Trump’s behavior was both exasperating and highly suspicious, and it would have looked very bad if it had been known that Flynn tried to undermine President Obama’s sanctions on the same day he issued them.
Ignatius acknowledged that the Trump team probably wouldn’t have a committed a crime in such a case, owing mainly to the fact that the Logan Act has never been enforced. In fact, Ignatius wrote “If the Trump team’s contacts helped discourage the Russians from a counter-retaliation, maybe that’s a good thing.” Nonetheless, he said the American people had the right to know what Trump had done.
After Flynn pled guilty yesterday to lying about his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak, we have a lot more clarity and certainty about what happened, but a lot of commentators, including Ignatius, are wondering why the Trump team didn’t just admit what they had done in the first place.
Here’s Ignatius offering a theory:
Why was Flynn lying about the Kislyak calls? What was he covering up? We have one hint in the “Statement of the Offense” that accompanies the plea agreement. The prosecutors say that Flynn cleared his comments to Kislyak beforehand with an unnamed official who is described as “a senior official of the Presidential Transition Team” who was staying with Trump at Mar-a-Lago. Only then, with top-level approval to discuss sanctions, did Flynn call the Russian ambassador.
Say what you like about Flynn, but an ex-general follows the chain of command. Given his seniority as the designated national security adviser, there are only two people who would likely have authorized this contact with Russia: Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who had been conducting his own extensive back-channel contacts with Kislyak and other Russians, and the president-elect himself, who had said throughout the campaign that he wanted to improve relations with Russia.
What this doesn’t explain is why they didn’t just say, “Yeah, Flynn called him and offered relief from the sanctions and he did it under the direction of Kushner and/or Trump.” Why did they try to lie first about what Flynn had discussed with Kislyak and then about whether Flynn had been honest with the press shop and Mike Pence? Why did they let Flynn fall on his sword and lose his job when all he did was follow orders? And why were they prepared to let him rot in jail?
In part, the answer is that they were under a lot of heat and suspicion. In part, it’s because the Intelligence Community was already antagonized and would have gone ape. In fact, the Intelligence Community was listening to the Flynn-Kislyak conversations in real time, and they did go ape.
But it’s also because everyone has been focused on the wrong set of conversations. It wasn’t the December 29th sanction-related conversations that were the most devious. It was the December 22nd UN Resolution-related conversations that the administration wanted to hide the most. This was a resolution condemning Israeli settlements. The United States had vetoed similar resolutions in the past, but President Obama had indicated that we would abstain this time and let the vote occur. This made Israel furious and they reached out to Jared Kushner to see if he could put a stop to it. Kushner then called Michael Flynn and tasked him with contacting every country on the fifteen-member UN Security Council. Obviously, Russia was one of those countries:
Egypt presented the UN resolution on 21 December. According to prosecutors, Flynn spoke to then-Russian ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak about the resolution the next day and pressured Russia to oppose it. On 23 December, Kislyak told Flynn that Russia would not veto the resolution.
“During the January 24 voluntary interview, FLYNN made additional false statements about calls he made to Russia and several other countries regarding a resolution submitted by Egypt to the United Nations Security Council on December 21, 2016,” prosecution documents said.
“Specifically FLYNN falsely stated that he only asked the countries’ positions on the vote, and that he did not request that any of the countries take any particular action on the resolution. FLYNN also falsely stated that the Russian Ambassador never described to him Russia’s response to FLYNN’s request regarding the resolution,” the documents added.
Notice that Flynn perjured himself to protect Kushner and Trump. But it was a foolish thing to do because Kushner’s efforts were anything but secret.
While the Times of Israel reported on the 22nd that the vote had been postponed due to “high level” contacts between their government and the government of Egypt, the truth of the matter emerged in their paper on December 23rd: “Egypt has agreed to postpone a UN resolution…agreement reached in phone conversation between Trump and El-Sisi.”
In fact, while Foreign Policy magazine did not know about Flynn’s efforts to call all the countries on the Security Council, they knew that “The Trump transition team approached the State Department with an urgent request: Hand over any cell phone numbers, emails, and other contacts of ambassadors and foreign ministers from the Security Council’s 15 member states.” Additionally, it wasn’t exactly subtle when “Nikki Haley, Trump’s appointee for UN envoy, tried ‘frantically’ to reach Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN at the time.”
The White House knew exactly what the Trump team was doing and they were openly annoyed about it at the time. They wanted the UN Resolution to pass, and the Trump transition team was working frantically on Netanyahu’s behalf to defeat or postpone it. This was a far more aggressive violation of the Logan Act than the comparatively tame sanctions-related assurances Flynn offered to Kislyak on the 29th.
The main difference between the two issues was that Obama was more isolated on the Israel issue while Trump was more isolated on the Russia one. There were a lot of people around town who disagreed with Obama letting the UN Resolution go through, but there was almost no one who wasn’t in Trump’s inner circle who supported undermining the president’s punishment of Russian interference in the election.
So, the incoming administration was relatively happy to have the focus on the Russia side of the coin, but they didn’t want to cop to either effort at undermining Obama.
The Intelligence Community knew that Flynn would be more damaged and easier to expel if they focused on the less popular of his conversations with Kislyak, so that’s what they leaked to Ignatius. In truth, though, the UN Resolution effort was the larger and more egregious violation of principle. It even succeeded, briefly, in delaying the vote.
Incidentally, if you want to know why Alan Dershowitz is so keen to dismiss any wrongdoing by Michael Flynn, you should watch this video:
As recently as March, President Trump used Dershowitz to convey a private message to Netanyahu after having a private meeting with him at Mar-a-Lago. Neither Dershowitz nor Netanyahu want to see Flynn punished for doing what he could to prevent Obama’s “betrayal” of Israel. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, from their perspectives at least, but you should keep it in mind when you see Dershowitz opining on the Russia investigation.