The ironic thing about the mounting frenzy over former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his resignation Monday night, ably recounted by Ben Bowles, is that there is so little actual substance to the case against him.
After all the noise – today’s, last week’s, last month’s – it remains the case that the only thing Flynn is “alleged” to have done is speak to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in a phone conversation that possibly included discussion of U.S. sanctions against Russia. I put “alleged” in scare quotes because the anonymous individuals conveying this implication to the Washington Post have actually been pretty careful not to make even that specific an allegation. To hear them tell it, the awful thing Flynn did would seem to boil down to having been caught talking to the ambassador in a monitored phone call.
The whole thing is smoke and mirrors, creating an impression of impropriety around which anonymous voices, and a few congressional Democrats and Washington insiders, have rallied with bloodthirsty sanctimony.
Frankly, everyone who’s out there babbling credulously about the bread crumbs being tossed out on this should be embarrassed at being taken for a fool.
Remember that. There’s no there there.
A few comments on the drama, which WaPo now warns us is just getting started.
The news magically changed in the last three weeks
This, you probably won’t remember. But on 23 January, WaPo cited “U.S. officials” in a report that the FBI had reviewed the recorded phone calls in question – exactly the phone calls anonymous sources later told WaPo were damning evidence against Flynn – and said (emphasis added):
The FBI in late December reviewed intercepts of communications between the Russian ambassador to the United States and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — national security adviser to then-President-elect Trump — but has not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government, U.S. officials said.
WaPo said Flynn was not being targeted in an investigation:
Although Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were listened to, Flynn himself is not the active target of an investigation, U.S. officials said.
So, you know, remember that now. One thing we can say for sure is that no content could have been added to the phone calls between 23 January and today.
Sally Yates, trotted out for a political resurrection
Nevertheless, the FBI’s boss at the time, (then) acting Attorney General Sally Yates, is now said to have told the White House “near the end of January” that she thought Flynn was dirty. HuffPo quotes WaPo here:
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.
Sally Yates, you’ll remember, is the Obama appointee who publicly defied Trump’s immigration order at the end of January, and was fired for it. NY Daily News is just one among many MSM outlets presenting us this morning with a narrative on this tied up in a little bow:
Sally Yates was anything but treacherous in her final days as President Trump’s acting Attorney General.
Her role as a legal canary in the coal mine during a brief role heading the Justice Department may have poised the White House away from National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and inspired his ousting.
Yates tried insulating the White House from a series of looming controversies — the potentially illegal executive order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries and the latest bombshell that Flynn misled several senior members of the Trump administration about his suspected pre-inauguration talks with a Russian diplomat.
Blah blah blah. HuffPo has to get in its own licks:
Yates made headlines at the end of January after announcing the Justice Department would refuse to defend Trump’s controversial executive order on immigration. She was fired within hours, and the White House released a strongly worded statement saying she had “betrayed” the administration.
Yates was widely praised for her decision. Former U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch said she “displayed the fierce intellect, unshakeable integrity, and deep commitment to the rule of law that have characterized her 27 years of distinguished service to the Department of Justice,” and former Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) tweeted, “Thank God there are people who will follow the Constitution.”
Others called Yates a “profile in courage.”
It’s like being force-fed Stalin’s Party-approved news in 1938. The hand of orchestration behind it is absurdly obvious.
It was a “political assassination”
A few days ago, defending Flynn against the substance-less innuendo campaign felt like being something of a lone voice out on a limb. David P. Goldman spoke up over the weekend. But today, in the wake of the resignation, more voices have emerged, including Adam Kredo, Kenneth Timmerman, and Eli Lake.
Lake baldly calls the campaign against Flynn a “political assassination.” He takes some of the innuendo more seriously than I think is warranted, but he acknowledges the bottom line about it: “[T]hat’s all these allegations are at this point: unanswered questions.”
Lake recognizes the danger in seeing a president’s appointee taken down through what, at this point, is still just a smear job:
In the end, it was Trump’s decision to cut Flynn loose. In doing this he caved in to his political and bureaucratic opposition. [California Rep. Devin Nunes] told me Monday night that this will not end well. “First it’s Flynn, next it will be Kellyanne Conway, then it will be Steve Bannon, then it will be Reince Priebus,” he said. Put another way, Flynn is only the appetizer. Trump is the entree.
More on that later.
Timmerman has no doubt that the hand of the “shadow warriors” whom he calls “rogue weasels” is on this. He and Eli Lake both point to the gross impropriety of the leaks to the Washington Post about the electronic monitoring of the Russian ambassador – something that suddenly, last week, was suffered to become a topic of routine public conversation. WaPo, in fact, barely registered in its reporting that this is a sensitive program.
I found that telling myself last week, and know just what Timmerman means when he says of the leakers: “What sets off this particular episode of the shadow warriors [i.e., what distinguishes it – J.E.] is the willingness of former top officials to leave their fingerprints behind.”
The sense of the “shadow warriors” assassinating someone in the open, and then taking credit for it, is palpable.
The “Iran deal” angle, the “echo chamber,” and the Obama-staffers shadow war
Adam Kredo’s article is in some ways the most intriguing. His sources have told him explicitly that the campaign against Flynn was organized by members of the Obama administration. Reportedly, a key purpose was to dirty up Trump’s national security team before it reveals the details of the 2015 “Iran deal” (the JCPOA) that have been kept secret from the public, and even from Congress, in the 18 months since. (Emphasis added.)
The abrupt resignation Monday evening of White House national security adviser Michael Flynn is the culmination of a secret, months-long campaign by former Obama administration confidantes to handicap President Donald Trump’s national security apparatus and preserve the nuclear deal with Iran, according to multiple sources in and out of the White House who described to the Washington Free Beacon a behind-the-scenes effort by these officials to plant a series of damaging stories about Flynn in the national media.
The effort, said to include former Obama administration adviser Ben Rhodes—the architect of a separate White House effort to create what he described as a pro-Iran echo chamber—included a small task force of Obama loyalists who deluged media outlets with stories aimed at eroding Flynn’s credibility, multiple sources revealed.
The operation primarily focused on discrediting Flynn, an opponent of the Iran nuclear deal, in order to handicap the Trump administration’s efforts to disclose secret details of the nuclear deal with Iran that had been long hidden by the Obama administration.
At least one of Kredo’s sources describes the nature of the campaign against Flynn as very similar to the “echo chamber” campaign waged by Obama adviser Ben Rhodes on behalf of the “Iran deal” in 2015. Most of the public focus in the past week has been on the content of the notorious phone call between Flynn and Kislyak – but according to several sources, the real campaign is much bigger than that.
However, multiple sources closely involved in the situation pointed to a larger, more secretive campaign aimed at discrediting Flynn and undermining the Trump White House.
“It’s undeniable that the campaign to discredit Flynn was well underway before Inauguration Day, with a very troublesome and politicized series of leaks designed to undermine him,” said one veteran national security adviser with close ties to the White House team. “This pattern reminds me of the lead up to the Iran deal, and probably features the same cast of characters.”
Kredo cites a Daily Beast story that many readers probably saw in January, describing an anti-Trump media campaign organized by Obama staffers to undermine Trump’s foreign policy. He goes on to quote another source:
“It’s actually Ben Rhodes, NIAC, and the Iranian mullahs who are celebrating today,” said one veteran foreign policy insider who is close to Flynn and the White House. “They know that the number one target is Iran … [and] they all knew their little sacred agreement with Iran was going to go off the books. So they got rid of Flynn before any of the [secret] agreements even surfaced.”
Yes, Ben Rhodes. This is the guy who was denied a security clearance during the 2008 Obama transition, and was subsequently put in a made-up White House job – “Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting” – from which he claimed in 2016 to have created a mainstream media “echo chamber” to sell the Obama narrative for the 2015 “Iran deal.”
While other Obama administration personnel were negotiating with Iran and the P5+1, Rhodes was running a strategic communications war room:
Rhodes’s war room did its work on Capitol Hill and with reporters. In the spring of last year, legions of arms-control experts began popping up at think tanks and on social media, and then became key sources for hundreds of often-clueless reporters. “We created an echo chamber,” he admitted, when I asked him to explain the onslaught of freshly minted experts cheerleading for the deal. “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
When I [NYT reporter David Samuels – J.E.] suggested that all this dark metafictional play seemed a bit removed from rational debate over America’s future role in the world, Rhodes nodded. “In the absence of rational discourse, we are going to discourse the [expletive] out of this,” he said. “We had test drives to know who was going to be able to carry our message effectively, and how to use outside groups like Ploughshares, the Iran Project and whomever else. So we knew the tactics that worked.” He is proud of the way he sold the Iran deal. “We drove them crazy,” he said of the deal’s opponents.
It isn’t clear whether Rhodes himself has been involved in the campaign against Flynn. But his “Iran deal” war room staff, and its methods, would obviously be suited to mounting such a campaign. (Rhodes’s brother David Rhodes is still the president of CBS News, as he was at the time of major dramas like the “Iran deal” and Benghazi.)
The serious matter of the leaks about electronic monitoring
Lawmakers on the Hill are expressing grave concern about the leaks to the Washington Post (discussed above; Eli Lake and Ken Timmerman both emphasized them). And their concern is not just about the leaks, but about one obvious feature of the leaked information: that the leakers knew the identity of the person Ambassador Kislyak was talking to. By law, they aren’t supposed to.
Unless he was the subject of an investigation, Mike Flynn’s identity in the monitored phone calls should not have been known to anyone outside the FBI’s monitoring team. His identity should not have been recorded at all, or ever discussed.
Yet in January, the FBI reportedly said it had reviewed Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak – even though the FBI also said Flynn was not under investigation. (See, I told you you’d want to remember that.)
Congress very properly wants to know if the FBI had a warrant for identifying Flynn in such phone calls. And if so, why the BS story from January about not monitoring Flynn himself, because he wasn’t under investigation? Which version is the truth?
Inflection point, but maybe not the one people think
This is effectively the inflection point of our story. It’s been all bad news up to this point. But think about it: the prospect of looking into this matter almost certainly isn’t going to hurt Mike Flynn any more. We know what we’re going to know about him. (Given how much the WaPo sources have burbled already, we can bet that if they really knew Flynn had made improper representations about the Russia sanctions in his phone calls with Kislyak, we’d already know what he said.)
But based on what we seem to know at this point, an investigation into the leaks would uncover actual felonies in the FBI and the intelligence community. And the difference between the before-20 January era and today is that the Obama administration isn’t here now to obstruct such an investigation.
Leading obviously to the question:
What is the Trump administration, really?
Let me start this segment by stating up front that I am very sorry to lose Mike Flynn as national security adviser. He’s a good man who would have been good in the job.
That said, a few observations about this situation may be encouraging, for those who want to preserve the rule of law and see the Trump administration have the same fair chance the Obama administration got.
One, although Eli Lake pooh-poohed the explanation Kellyanne Conway gave for Flynn’s removal (see his link above, and Howard Portnoy’s at the top), I think he was wrong to do so. Conway said it was about Flynn misleading Vice President Pence (even if it was inadvertently). For seasoned executive leaders, that resonates. In a pressure-cooker environment like the one created by the hostile Washington media, it is most definitely a reason to fire someone.
It’s unqualifiedly correct to say that Flynn wasn’t given a fair shake as he tried to start his new job. But in the priorities list for things he had to get right, arming the vice president with information that’s exactly and completely true is among the very highest – and one of the few things Flynn had positive control over.
You don’t wing that. And your screw-ups aren’t anyone else’s fault. You go as far out of your way as you have to, to get it right the first time, and stay on top of it if things change. Any military officer who’s ever done a staff job understands this, as do the advisers and assistants who work for high-powered executives like Trump.
There is no value in speculating further on what else may have been going on in this regard. Sean Spicer seemed to allude to that in his remarks on Tuesday. But what Kellyanne Conway said is enough. It rings true.
Two, however, Trump remains his own man, if he wants to be. He can pick another good national security adviser – there are excellent candidates out there – and get what he wants, without kowtowing to the Washington establishment. If he does, America will still win. That’s what counts, and for what it’s worth, I think that’s what Trump cares about.
If Trump had to learn any lessons from this episode, he probably has. I think it’s a mistake to assign him the chump’s role just yet. He’s been a fighter from the beginning, always remaining on the move and being part steamroller, part bomb-sniffing dog. I don’t think he’s cornered.
Consider just the following. Trump can still name his own national security adviser. He’s got his new attorney general and his CIA director (Mike Pompeo). He has the legitimate pretext now for a wirebrush investigation of the very officials who were working so hard over the last couple of weeks to undermine his national security team — and Congress wanting that investigation. These are leakers who apparently were gathering information improperly on a U.S. citizen. (Which, to be clear, is a felony, even aside from the “leaks” aspect of this.) They’re not the ones I’d want to be, going forward. You really have to think Trump is stupid, to imagine that he doesn’t see that option clearly.
And – three – regarding the revelation of the secret protocols to the “Iran deal,” those are written down in black and white somewhere. Imposing handicaps on their release is a losing proposition, and the long run on that won’t be so very long.
Maybe the assault on Flynn was part of a larger effort that includes trying to blackmail Trump to keep him quiet about the “Iran deal” protocols. Keep in mind, merely revealing the secret protocols would be considered a breach of the “deal” by Iran. Trump’s opponents in the U.S. have more than one reason for wanting to prevent the public exposure. They don’t want to present Iran with triggers that have to be reacted to.
Enlarge the field of view
But there’s more than one way to reveal secrets. This is just one possibility, but if I were the one sitting the Oval Office, there’s someone in particular I would want to reveal the secret protocols to, and discuss them with – and he just landed in the United States today. I wouldn’t go out and spill my guts to the media on this. Just letting the knowledge seep into others’ minds that the opportunity for such an exchange was there would be enough.
Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, meanwhile, has asserted since December that it has positive information that the Obama administration coordinated and pushed for the appalling UNSCR 2334. It’s not clear if Trump already has that information, or if it has yet to be presented to him. But in terms of arming each other with materially significant knowledge, and mind-melding on its import, Trump and Netanyahu are in a privileged position this week that the media can do nothing about. They’re in a position to get U.S.-Israeli relations, and our common strategic vision, off the paralyzing top dead center the Obama administration labored for eight years to keep it on.
Framing such moments in the conventions of diplomacy and statesmanlike messaging may not be Trump’s strong suit. But I’d bet he can recognize the nature of the opportunity.
And fortunately, the statesmanship part is Netanyahu’s strong suit (along with an aptitude for strategic vision). Discounting the importance of that is a persistent weakness of the anti-Trump chorus. The American people – Trump’s base in particular – like and admire Netanyahu. For the anti-Trump legions, not letting themselves recognize and believe that is a severe operational handicap.
The mainstream media are off mesmerizing themselves with their theme about the “settlements,” as the Trump-Netanyahu meeting looms. But it isn’t about the “settlements” now, and I give both men and their top advisers credit for knowing that. I’m sure they’ll make all the perfunctory references to the settlements in whatever statements they offer. But this summit will almost certainly focus, in the meetings that matter, on other things.
If the media takedown squad wants to fight rearguard battles against a Trump administration that is, in fact, free in key ways to start moving forward, that can be an advantage for Trump. All it takes is seeing it that way. I’m not sure that Trump sees it, but I think there’s a good chance of it. Like him or loathe him – one thing we know about Trump: the media don’t define winning and losing for him. He does.