There sure are a lot of “cloud over Mike Flynn” stories in the news lately, and there sure are a lot of people within the administration who seem eager to have those stories out there. WaPo’s big scoop yesterday about Flynn having discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador in December, weeks before Trump was sworn in, was based on interviews with no fewer than nine sources. Getting someone to say something damning about Flynn is the easiest job in media right now.
Politico spies a new cloud on the horizon:
On Friday, one of Flynn’s closest deputies on the National Security Council, senior director for Africa Robin Townley, was informed that the Central Intelligence Agency had rejected his request for an elite security clearance required for service on the NSC, according to two people with direct knowledge of the situation…
“[Flynn and his allies] believe this is a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him,” said one source, who argued that some in the intelligence community feel threatened by Flynn and his allies. “Townley believes that the CIA doesn’t run the world,” the source said…
One person close to Trump said that, within the White House, Flynn is regarded by some as waging “a jihad against the intelligence community.” This person said Flynn is blamed by some people around Trump for trying to turn the new president against the intelligence community during the campaign and transition period, when Trump was openly skeptical about U.S. intelligence findings that Russia meddled in the election to try to help his campaign and damage that of his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
One source who spoke to Politico claims that Trump’s own handpicked CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, approved the action denying Townley a security clearance. That’s one likely explanation for the backbiting against Flynn — he’s in a turf war with the broader intelligence community, which has incentives to undermine him by leaking. (That’s how WaPo managed to scrape together nine sources.) But that’s not the only turf war he’s fighting. Remember, Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner were allegedly forced to intervene several weeks ago when Pompeo, Jim Mattis, and Rex Tillerson complained that Flynn was being too aggressive in trying to assert his influence. Bannon and Kushner allegedly promised to do something about it; around the same time, Trump took the surprising step of hiring an additional White House advisor on counterterrorism (Tom Bossert) who would report directly to him, not to Flynn, a sign that someone near the top of the food chain isn’t comfortable with Flynn being the president’s only pipeline for natsec information.
On top of all of that, Flynn’s influence may also be threatening the policymaking ambitions of other major players within the White House’s inner circle. “Three weeks into Mr. Trump’s presidency,” writes the Times, “Mr. Flynn’s role on national security matters has been challenged by other West Wing power players — including the president’s chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, and Mr. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, who have both taken expansive roles shaping foreign and defense policy.” Remember the news last week about Bannon landing a seat on the National Security Council’s Principals Committee? That’s yet another way to make sure Flynn isn’t Trump’s exclusive eyes and ears on intelligence. The question is whether all of this is being done prudentially, because Trump and his team have reason to believe they can’t completely trust Flynn (the worst possible quality you could have in a national security advisor) or whether it’s a pure power play to expand the influence of people like Bannon at Flynn’s expense.
Here’s a possible clue to the answer:
Pence said in a Jan. 15 appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were “strictly coincidental” and had nothing to do with the Obama administration’s decision to punish Russia for meddling in the November election, which U.S. intelligence agencies agree was intended to help boost Trump’s prospects. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence told CBS.
An administration official told POLITICO that Pence’s remarks came after a conversation with Flynn and were guided by that conversation — leaving open the possibility that Flynn misled the Vice President just as he repeatedly denied the allegations to the Washington Post before acknowledging the topic may have been discussed.
Privately, Pence aides expressed frustration at their boss being placed in such a position.
If Flynn thinks he’s in a position to lie to the vice president of the United States about major policy plans like rolling back sanctions on Russia, you can understand why Team Trump might be looking for ways to curtail his influence. Bad enough that he’d do something as improper as nudging Russia that they needn’t overreact to Obama’s sanctions since Trump would soon be in charge, but to mislead Pence knowing that Pence would be forced to defend Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador in public is a dereliction of duty and an insult to Pence personally. A superior might lie to a deputy on the theory that some sensitive information is on a need-to-know basis, but a deputy should never lie to a superior. If Flynn misled Pence, it says a lot about how he views his stature within the administration compared to Pence’s.
And if perchance he misled Pence at Trump’s behest, that says a lot about how Trump views Pence’s stature within the administration.
Let’s pause now and take stock of just how many people at the highest heights of the U.S. government have reason to be pissed off at Flynn and willing to damage him by chirping to the media. Bannon and Kushner may be wary of him, both for threatening their influence and for antagonizing key cabinet secretaries; Mattis, Tillerson, and Pompeo are supposedly annoyed at him for undercutting them, including on personnel decisions; Pence and his team are understandably angry at him for allegedly misleading Pence about the Kislyak phone call; and various natsec professionals are suspicious of him for his chumminess with Russia and his willingness to undercut Obama by hinting at sanctions relief right around the time sanctions were first being imposed. That’s a lot of people with a lot of power to have in your frenemies column three weeks into an administration. His only major ally right now may be Trump himself, who, according to Politico, thinks Flynn is “loyal and has expertise. Among others, there’s this perception he is wild, outside the box, not suited for the office. But I don’t think Donald thinks that at all.” Trump won’t fire Flynn lightly lest he be seen — gasp — as having made a major personnel error. And that’s especially true if the sanctions talk on the Kislyak call was done with Trump’s knowledge and approval.
In lieu of an exit question, read this short but interesting piece by David Frum about the risk of Flynn trying to turn the National Security Council from a deliberative body that weighs policy choices and presents its recommendations to the president into a more executive body that implements foreign policy in certain ways — under his supervision as NSA, of course. A key point by Frum: If Flynn’s phone call with Kislyak hadn’t been revealed until after Trump had rolled back sanctions on Russia, the scandal might have ended up much bigger than it is. Because it leaked now, Trump might decide that rolling back sanctions would look too dodgy and may hold off on doing so, at least for awhile. And if some other Flynn misstep emerges, Trump could cite it along with the Kislyak call as grounds for replacing him ASAP. That’s the ultimate point of all the leaking by Flynn’s enemies, I’m sure: The more his name is in the news for negative reasons, the more likely Trump will decide that it’s too much of a headache to keep him on. WaPo’s piece probably isn’t the last time a major paper will run dirt on Flynn with a dozen sources or whatever.