The Washington Post has an article today on contacts between National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, back in December. (My colleague, Patterico, has his take on the story here.) In the main, the story doesn’t take us much beyond what we already knew. We don’t even know if it is true because it relies on Obama administration officials as sources and one of the reporters, Adam Entous, has a track record of making up big stories out of inconsequential factoids.
This is the gist of the story:
National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former U.S. officials said.
Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.
Flynn on Wednesday denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, “No.”
On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
There are two separate issues here. One of them is bullsh**. The other is real.
First, the bullsh**.
The source for this story is “[n]ine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.” That description, alone, tells you a lot. These nine officials, by the way, are all Obama appointed officials and have a personal stake in both the sanctions and in making the incoming administration look bad.
When you look at the story about the calls there really isn’t anything there.
When Flynn made the call he had already been designated as Donald Trump’s National Security adviser AND he was on the federal payroll. So the “Logan Act” hooey, to the extent that act is even constitutional, doesn’t apply to Flynn. He also had every right to contact the Russian ambassador. And, if it was Trump’s desire, he had every right to tell the Russians that the new administration intended to reverse Obama’s sanctions. There is absolutely nothing immoral, illegal or unethical about this contact even if it contained a promise to withdraw sanctions. You might not like that Flynn called, you might even think the piss-ant and politically driven sanctions slapped on Russia by Obama are a good idea (I’m not one of them), but that is a matter of personal taste. The sanctions were imposed by presidential decree and can be just as easily withdrawn. I find it hard to fault the administration for trying to tamp down a crisis manufactured for them by a vengeful Obama administration as it was loading the U-Haul because it is clear that the sanctions were calculated to play into the “Russians-gave-the-election-to-Trump” hysteria Obama was peddling in November and December.
The fact that the sanctions were designed for no other reason than to blow up on Trump is essentially admitted to in the article:
Official concern about Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak was heightened when Putin declared on Dec. 30 that Moscow would not retaliate after the Obama administration announced a day earlier the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian spies and the forced closure of Russian-owned compounds in Maryland and New York.
Instead, Putin said he would focus on “the restoration of Russia-United States relations” after Obama left office, and put off considering any retaliatory measures until Moscow had a chance to evaluate Trump’s policies.
Really? They were “concerned” when they saw the Russians were ignoring the provocation? I’d think someone who had an actual interest in furthering the foreign policy interests of the United States and not in merely creating difficulties for the new administration would be relieved that the US and Russia didn’t enter a cycle of retaliation.
In fact, the only argument that can be made against Flynn’s call is that a new administration is not allowed to have any contact with foreign nations before noon on Inauguration Day. Flynn had, according to the article, contacted dozens of other nations but the only one that is of concern is the one to Russia. Again, that tells you a lot about the motivation of the sources. There is no legal difference between incoming National Security Adviser Mike Flynn calling Burundi and him calling Russia. If he can legally call one, he can legally call the other.
In summary, the calls by Flynn can be made to look bad because of the former business arrangement between Flynn and RT.com. But Russian sanctions were going to be an issue to the incoming administration, the administration and the nation had a vested interest in avoiding an escalating cycle of retaliation with Russia, and Flynn had every legal right, as the representative of the incoming president, to call the Russian ambassador. If he wanted to promise the incoming administration would remove sanctions, there is nothing wrong with that either.
Let’s go on to the real part.
The emerging details contradict public statements by incoming senior administration officials including Mike Pence, then the vice president-elect. They acknowledged only a handful of text messages and calls exchanged between Flynn and Kislyak late last year and denied that either ever raised the subject of sanctions.
“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence said in an interview with CBS News last month, noting that he had spoken with Flynn about the matter. Pence also made a more sweeping assertion, saying there had been no contact between members of Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign. To suggest otherwise, he said, “is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”
Many years ago, back when I weighed 155-pounds, had a full head of hair and thought beer was food, I was privileged to go to a three-week commando course run by the 82d Airborne Division. Each day one of Roger’s Rangers Standing Orders was posted and you had to memorize it. And you were called upon a points of high stress during the course to recite the Standing Orders and woe be unto you if you failed. To this day I can still do it.
Standing Order #4. “Tell the truth about what you see and what you do. There is an army depending on us for correct information. You can lie all you please when you tell other folks about the Rangers, but don’t never lie to a Ranger or officer.”
Or, as one of my first commanders told me, “integrity is non-negotiable.”
If Pence shaded the truth in the CBS interview that is on him. But if Flynn lied to Pence about the number and extent of the calls then Flynn needs to go and he needs to go fast. You can’t have someone on your team who is lying to you about chickensh**. If the guy will lie about stuff and he knows he will get caught — Flynn, as a senior intelligence officer knows that phone calls to the Russian ambassador and embassy are routinely intercepted and recorded by the FBI — then the guy will lie to you about literally anything and everything.