Flynn is Gone, But the President is Still There

If you were a fly on the wall in the White House over the weekend (or on March 22, 1973), you might have heard an exchange that went something like this.

PRESIDENT: You think, you think we want to, want to go this route now? And the — let it hang out, so to speak?
McGAHN: Well, it’s, it isn’t really that —
MILLER: It’s a limited hang out.
McGAHN: It’s a limited hang out.
BANNON: It’s a modified limited hang out.
PRESIDENT: Well, it’s only the questions of the thing hanging out publicly or privately.

All I’ve done here is change the names from Dean, Haldeman, and Erlichmann. A limited (modified) hangout is something the intelligence community does when things have gotten out of hand and they can no longer just deny, deny, deny.

In spy jargon, it’s a tactic used when “they can no longer rely on a phony cover story to misinform the public, they resort to admitting—sometimes even volunteering—some of the truth while still managing to withhold the key and damaging facts in the case. The public, however, is usually so intrigued by the new information that it never thinks to pursue the matter further.”

Nancy has already ably described some of the basics related to the resignation of Michael Flynn, so I won’t replicate her efforts here. It’s important to keep in mind that everything that came to light in the last week was already known or knowable before the inauguration.

The immediate dispute was about a phone call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador Sergey I. Kislyak that took place on December 29th, the same day that President Obama announced new unilateral sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of “35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives” in retaliation for their interference in our presidential election. Russia’s first response was belligerent, as Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov vowed retaliation and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced reciprocal plans to expel American diplomats.

But then something surprising happened. Vladimir Putin announced that there would be no response and that they’d simply wait to deal with Trump. What happened next looks very interesting in retrospect.

At the time, it was jarring to see President Obama blister Putin on the 29th only to see Trump praise him on the 30th. So, what had Michael Flynn said on the phone call? Did it cause Russia to back off the threats made by Peskov and Lavrov?

Once the intelligence community located the recording and transcribed it, it was clear that Flynn had asked Russia not to retaliate and held out the promise of softer treatment and better relations once he and Trump took office. It didn’t take long for news to get out about the phone call itself, if not immediately the content of the call. By January 13th, Sean Spicer told the press that “I can confirm having spoken to [Flynn] about it is those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.” The official story was that the call was about scheduling a post-inaugural call between Putin and Trump.

Two days later, on Sunday the 15th, Mike Pence appeared on Face the Nation and said, “[Flynn and Kislyak] did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”

The Intelligence Community and the Obama administration noticed these lies and realized immediately that if Michael Flynn had indeed misled Spicer and Pence that he had just opened himself up to blackmail.

Sometime in late January, the Justice Department notified the Trump administration that Flynn was subject to blackmail, but nothing appears to have been done about it until that news broke in the Washington Post yesterday.

The blackmail risk envisioned by the Justice Department would have stemmed directly from Mr. Flynn’s attempt to cover his tracks with his bosses. The Russians knew what had been said on the call; thus, if they wanted Mr. Flynn to do something, they could have threatened to expose the lie if he refused.

There’s a juicy tidbit in the New York Times’ story on this: “The F.B.I. had been examining Mr. Flynn’s phone calls as he came under growing questions about his interactions with Russian officials and his management of the National Security Council.” That makes it sound like the Intelligence Community was so unhappy about Flynn’s work at the NSC that they took him out by sending the blackmail notification and then leaking about it to the Post when no action was taken by Trump.

But, of course, long before that happened, Pence learned what was actually on the transcript of the call. He knew that he’d been lied to and that he had gone on national television and repeated those lies. At that point, Pence and the Intelligence Community had a common cause, and they seemed to have worked in tandem, with Pence taking the lead on the 10th and the IC delivering the death blow on the 13th.

An administration official told POLITICO that Pence’s remarks came after a conversation with Flynn and were guided by that conversation — leaving open the possibility that Flynn misled the Vice President just as he repeatedly denied the allegations to the Washington Post before acknowledging the topic may have been discussed.

Privately, Pence aides expressed frustration at their boss being placed in such a position.

We were talking about limited (modified) hangouts, and this could be an example of that. Everyone focuses on Flynn having lied to Pence rather than asking what Pence knew about Flynn’s plans to call the Russian ambassador on the 29th.

More likely, though, Pence wasn’t part of that strategy. Given Trump’s tweet on December 30th, it’s much harder to believe that he was out of the loop. And I believe that protecting that information is the real hangout here.

To see the hangout in action, consider the case of the Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform, Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah. He’s supposed to be the watchdog of the administration. He should be issuing subpoenas like hotcakes.

By giving up Flynn as a scalp, the administration hopes to stop all the investigations and questions about their connections to Russia and possible coordination in hacking into the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s emails. Their allies in Congress are ready to play ball.

But it’s important to remember that neither the media nor congressional oversight took Flynn down. Flynn was taken down from within. He was taken down by the Intelligence Community with Pence as a seeming co-conspirator. All the fatal reporting came from those two sources.

So, it appears that this won’t be the end unless those two parties are satisfied that taking Flynn down solved the problem.

But the problem isn’t and never was Flynn. The problem is the president.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.