It seems that the scandal will simply not vanish in thin air, as it had been hoped at the outset by its perpetrators. There is enough evidence to keep the embarrassing story going for months. Let’s analyze it briefly.
We have those strange words at a press conference by Donald Trump regarding Flynn’s Russia contacts: “I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it.” That is a comment that Trump may come to regret as the ongoing investigation proceeds. It is quite similar to Nixon’s “I am not a crook,” or to Clinton’s “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
We may ask: what is the essence of this story? It is basically this: The United States imposed sanctions on Russia following its 2014 military incursion into Ukraine. Additional sanctions were put in place last year in reaction to Russia’s use of hacking and propaganda campaigns to influence the American election.
In a December 30 conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn discussed the sanctions, raising questions of whether he had said anything to the ambassador to undermine the policies of then-still-in-office President Barack Obama. On January 12, The Washington Post reported that the discussions between Flynn and Kislyak had in fact taken place and it was not just about pleasantries and greetings. That sane day, Flynn denied to White House spokesman Sean Spicer that he had mentioned sanctions to the Russian ambassador. Flynn also deceived Vice President Michael Pence, assuring him that they had only discussed logistics for phone calls with Trump; Pence repeated that falsehood publicly on January 16.
The next issue that needs exploration is that of the rules on surveillance by the NSA and the FBI. A lot of confusion exists in this regard. Those surveillance teams do not read emails and listen to telephone conversations indiscriminately. There are specific requirements, rules and guidelines in place.
The first rule comes from Executive Order 12333, signed by former President Ronald Reagan in 1981, which gives the FBI and the NSA the authority to use the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act as the basis for actively monitoring communications between foreign officials inside the United States, including ambassadors like Kislyak. Both Flynn and Kislyak must have known that their conversation was being monitored. But it is important to understand that if the conversation was just an exchange of pleasantries, it would no longer exist in the records.
That’s not the case. The conversation was deemed improper enough to be intercepted and brought to the attention of FBI’s National Security Division for review. If that review raised no concerns, it would have been stopped right there and there. It was instead elevated to a review by James Comey, the director of the FBI. He and his deputy then become the final arbiters as to whether or not the intercepted communication merits further investigation. It was decided that it did and therefore Flynn was interviewed.
The conversation of greatest importance took place on December 30. That was the day after the Obama administration took action against Russia for interfering with the American election with cyberattacks, expelling 35 suspected spies and imposing sanctions on two of that country’s intelligence agencies involved in hacking. It was in Flynn’s conversation the following day that he discussed the issue of American sanctions on Russia, which he later denied having done to Vice President Pence.
What created suspicions at the time is that President Obama expelled a number of Russian spies, Russia did not retaliate. The response to that refusal to retaliate was a tweet which was in essence a congratulation and a praise: “I always knew he was very smart.”
Soon after the inauguration, the FBI interviewed Flynn and the acting attorney general Sally Yates informed the new White House counsel, Don McGahn, that her Department had recordings that showed what Flynn had discussed with the Russian ambassador and his account was not true. Only eleven days later was the vice president informed that he had been deceived.
So the question arises: what did the president know, and when did he know it? That question if reminiscent of the famous question raised during the pre-impeachment proceeding of Richard Nixon.
Did Trump know what Flynn had discussed, and if he did not, is he an incompetent for not knowing? He had, after all, full authority to ask for the material in question. To the contrary, he and his cohorts wish to leave the impression that he did not know what Flynn said to the Russian ambassador. No reporter has, so far, asked him that question directly. There seems to be a reluctance to ask tough questions to someone who considers the press “the enemy of the American people.”
What we do have on record is that he would have told Flynn to do exactly what he actually did. The suspicion now grows that he knew all along what Flynn was planning and the “congratulations to Putin” was part of that knowledge.
The latest on this developing story is that Comey has already sat down for three hours with members of the Senate Intelligence Committee to brief them on what he knows. Those senators are no longer claiming ignorance of this story of the Russian scandal and have pledged an independent bipartisan investigation. Letters have been sent out to the White House demanding that documents not be destroyed as they relate to contacts with Russia. The future will determine if the entire story was “fake news.” I highly doubt it.