The Blackmail Story Doesn’t Add Up

When it comes to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, I have long seen him as an informal member of the intelligence community who often acts as their mouthpiece. For example, back in April 2012 I wrote the following about what I could learn about the progress of nuclear negotiations with Iran from reading Ignatius’s column:

I always need to read between the lines of any David Ignatius column to see whose agenda he’s pushing. He usually operates as a tool of our intelligence community, and what he says is less important than the interests he’s advancing. I have to say that I am quite relieved to see that the story line Ignatius is pushing this morning is that the nuclear talks with Iran are well-designed, working well, and likely to succeed in a peaceful and mutually acceptable settlement.

I don’t really care what Ignatius thinks about the talks, but it’s a good sign that his “masters” want to send the message that our government is pleased with the progress so far. It’s not a familiar message. Normally, what we hear is bellicose, alarmist, and apocalyptic.

It’s in this basic context that I go back and read Ignatius’s column (and the update to that column) from January 12th. As is his habit, Ignatius buried the lede in the 10th paragraph where he revealed that “According to a senior U.S. government official, [Michael] Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking.”

As far as I can tell, this was the first public notice that Michael Flynn had spoken with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on December 29th. But it wasn’t the only message that Ignatius was sending. At the top of his piece, he focused on the ongoing investigation of the “dossier about possible Russia-Trump contacts prepared by a former British intelligence officer” and wrote that “In a case where a foreign intelligence service allegedly ran a covert action against the United States’ political system, aborting the inquiry would be scandalous.”

Yet, despite the Flynn-Kislyak call being buried in the piece, it was immediately noticed. Sean Spicer was asked about it the next day and assured people that he had talked to Flynn and that the call had not involved a discussion of sanctions. As for Ignatius, the Trump folks got back to him and buried him in an avalanche of obfuscation.

The Trump transition team did not respond Thursday night to a request for comment. But two team members called with information Friday morning. A first Trump official confirmed that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak by phone, but said the calls were before sanctions were announced and didn’t cover that topic. This official later added that Flynn’s initial call was to express condolences to Kislyak after the terrorist killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara Dec. 19, and that Flynn made a second call Dec. 28 to express condolences for the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria. In that second call, Flynn also discussed plans for a Trump-Putin conversation sometime after the inauguration. In addition, a second Trump official said the Dec. 28 call included an invitation from Kislyak for a Trump administration official to visit Kazakhstan for a conference in late January.

Remember, Ignatius’s reporting was clear: “According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29.” The initial response from the transition team didn’t even acknowledge a call on the 29th.

Of course, Ignatius didn’t report that the intelligence community had a recording of the December 29th call(s), and a transcript, and knew exactly what was discussed. And that could explain why the Trump team lied to him on Friday morning, and why Spicer spread lies about it on Friday afternoon, and why Vice-President Pence spread lies about it on Sunday morning.

The way that both Spicer and Pence presented their defense of Flynn, it was clear that they had both spoken to him and were relying on his characterizations of the call(s).

At that point, (and it was still five days before the inauguration) it appeared that Flynn had lied to senior members of the transition team and could be exposed by the Russians at any time. That opened him up to potential blackmail, but only so long as his lies remained a secret known only by the intelligence community and the Russians.

Now, here is where the story gets very confusing and quite interesting.

It wasn’t until yesterday that the news broke in the Washington Post that the Trump administration had been warned that Flynn was subject to blackmail.

According to the story:

The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.

There are some clues here. The acting attorney general was Sally Q. Yates, and she was only the “acting” attorney general from noon on January 20th, when Trump became president, until January 30th when she was fired for refusing to enforce Trump’s Muslim Ban in court. So, she sent notification that Flynn had lied and could be blackmailed to the Trump administration sometime in the ten days between the 20th and 30th.

That seems a little late for the Trump team to learn about the transcript(s) and it also makes very little sense. After all, the simple act of telling the administration that Flynn had lied and providing them with the evidence would immediately eliminate the possibility of Flynn being blackmailed by the Russians. Why would he do the Russians’ bidding to avoid the administration learning something that the Intelligence Community had already told the administration?

The only way that could work is if both the Russians and Flynn remained ignorant of the fact that the truth had been exposed to Trump and his inner circle.

Nonetheless, that’s the story we’re being told. Ostensibly, the DOJ notified the administration that Flynn had lied and was vulnerable to blackmail, and then the Trump administration responded by firing the messenger (for unrelated reasons) and doing absolutely nothing about Flynn.

So, after another two weeks went by with no action, “current and former U.S. officials” went to the Washington Post and leaked about the blackmail angle. Once the news hit, Flynn didn’t last the evening.

But, as I discussed in my last piece, yesterday’s knockout punch was preceded by a bunch of activity coming out of Mike Pence’s office. On Friday the 10th, word leaked out that Pence was angry that Flynn had lied to him and caused him to tell untruths during his January 15th appearance on Face the Nation. And this is still the story the administration is telling as kind of “the last straw.”

As Matt Lauer incredulously noted, it doesn’t make sense that the administration knew for two weeks that Flynn was subject to blackmail but only decided to fire him when Mike Pence belatedly realized that he’d been lied to a month earlier.

It’s very hard to believe that the Trump administration remained ignorant about the transcript(s) prior to getting the DOJ notice in “late January.” But, assuming that is actually true, they knew at least at that point the threat of blackmail was over and that Flynn still had a real problem. In fact, no later than that point, they realized that Spicer and Pence had a problem because they were on the record defending Flynn.

If we read between the lines here, it’s clear that something a little different happened. The DOJ notice wasn’t really about the Russians blackmailing Flynn. It was about the Intelligence Community blackmailing Trump. If they didn’t get rid of Flynn voluntarily, then they’d leak the transcripts and expose them all for lying.

It wasn’t the only message that was fired across the administration’s bow. The CIA denied one of Flynn’s National Security Council appointee’s a security clearance. A senior Defense Intelligence analyst said, “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM [Situation Room],” and “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point.” There were “multiple current and former US law enforcement and intelligence officials” who told CNN that the British dossier was getting corroborated. “Two defense officials” were quoted saying that “the Army has been investigating whether Mr. Flynn received money from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015” in possible violation of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution.

It was a barrage aimed at the Trump administration, and it was coming from all quarters: the Army, the DIA, the CIA, the DOJ, the FBI, and the NSA.

Then I noticed that tidbit I mentioned in the last piece about the FBI “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.

The FBI was investigating Flynn’s phone calls because of his management of the National Security Council?

Well, he only started managing the National Security Council on January 20th. Mike Pence was getting lied to on the weekend of the 15th. And what does his management in late January have to do with his phone calls in late December? Finally, we already know that they were keyed in on Flynn from at least the 29th of December.

Were the FBI and the DOJ really concerned about impossible blackmail? Or were they concerned that Flynn was a Russian mole and determined to oust him from his position?

Well consider this:

In light of this, and out of worries about the White House’s ability to keep secrets, some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.

It’s hard to say whether it’s more significant that this has been happening or that it leaked at the particular moment that it leaked. In both cases, though, it shows that the intelligence community was absolutely fed up with Flynn’s continued employment as National Security Adviser.

Some questions remain, including what Pence’s role may have been. It could be that he was out of the loop on Flynn’s contacts with the Russians and that he was genuinely deceived by Flynn. He may have worked in coordination with elements in the Intelligence Community to force Flynn out.

Another possibility is that the concern about Flynn lying to Pence became a convenient cover story (a limited hangout). Since Pence was caught in a lie, this was a way to have Flynn fall on his sword and inoculate Pence and the rest of the administration.

But, if this was the case, it wasn’t well thought through because the next question immediately became why the administration left Flynn in place for weeks after learning of his subterfuge, and why he was allowed to resign rather than being fired.

It doesn’t add up because, the way it is being told, the blackmail story doesn’t make any sense.

Of course, the blackmail story could be true in an altered form. If the intelligence community developed information we still don’t know about that would subject Flynn to blackmail, then that could indeed have led directly to his demise. It’s just that he couldn’t have been blackmailed over a phone call if everyone already knew the content of that phone call.

A lot of things still aren’t clear, but what I can clearly discern is that the intelligence community took down Flynn, and the explanation that he was subject to blackmail over the phone call on the 29th isn’t the real reason he lost his job, even if the revelation that DOJ sent that notification was the nail in his coffin.

Martin Longman

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