It is usually in year three or year seven of a presidency that the scandals hit with full fury, but Donald J. Trump is shaking up all the staid conventions of Washington. The departure of his national security adviser after only 23 days on the job amid a growing intelligence scandal consuming his administration shows that the president is a fast learner.
While the mainstream interpretation of events has concluded that the scandal is exactly what it looks like – Lieutenant General Michael Flynn discussed possible changes in U.S. foreign policy with the Russian ambassador while still a private citizen, and then lied about it to Vice President Pence – commentators from the farther shores of politics see sinister forces swirling about, and emanating from all manner of dark corners: just not from the Russian government or the gonzo nature of the Trump administration itself.
From the Jill Stein left, for instance, we find Dennis Kucinich warning of an intelligence community coup against poor Mr. Trump — although the fact that Kucinich is a Fox News contributor suggests there is an odd alliance at work, or maybe the ex-congressman justs needs some way to finance his UFO hunts.
From the right, predictably, comes a fusillade of stories seeing the same dark forces at work, reinforced by the machinations of what Trump calls “fake news.” A piece in Breitbart, headed until last year by Steven Bannon, White House chief strategist, makes nearly 40 references to “the Deep State” deep-sixing Flynn. It suggests the Deep State will try to sideline other prominent administration figures one by one.
While it is flattering to have free advertising for one of my book titles, it is vital to keep in mind a fundamental principle: the best framework for interpreting complex events is by invoking Occam’s razor, the rule of thumb that the simplest explanation is most likely the true one.
First, it is mind-boggling that Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, would assume that calls to or from the Russian ambassador’s phone would not be monitored. This kind of ignorance, or reckless bravado, alone should be disqualifying for a sensitive post like national security adviser.
Second, anyone who might have watched a handful of episodes of West Wing would know that presidents-elect and their advisers do not speak in the name of the United States. Until noon on January 20, the incumbent administration has that duty, and designees like Flynn are private citizens with no right to make foreign policy.
Third, there is no dispute, whether on the left, the right, or in the Trump administration itself, that Flynn misled the Vice President and sent Pence on a fool’s errand to proclaim his innocence on national television. “Loss of trust” by the president was the administration’s rationale for Flynn’s forced resignation, at least until the White House trolls regrouped and pushed back. Suddenly, and in Trump’s own words, the untrustworthy Flynn became a “wonderful man” who was hounded out of public service by intelligence leaks to the “fake media.” It was a signal for the fever swamps of the right-wing media-entertainment complex to take up the cry of a far-reaching conspiracy.
But perhaps the most incredible and little-noted aspect of the affair is this. One might have assumed the late-December call between Flynn and Ambassador Kislyak took place while the former was in the president-elect’s transition office, or some similar Washington venue. But according to the Washington Post, the call took place not while Flynn was in D.C., but while on vacation at a beach-side resort in the Dominican Republic! Discussing sanctions with a foreign government while sipping a piña colada is reminiscent of Trump’s own crisis meeting at a Mar-a-Lago public dining room, with guests snapping selfies with the nuclear football.
But the crucial point is this: the Russian embassy is sovereign Russian territory. Flynn was outside the United States. The fact that the call both emanated from and terminated on foreign soil made Flynn, then a private citizen, perfectly fair game.