Asked at his press conference on February 16th why he had let Flynn go as national security advisor, Trump replied without missing a beat, “He didn’t tell the vice president of the United States the facts and then he didn’t remember, and that’s just not acceptable. I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence.” There were indeed reports in the media about that at the time: Supposedly Flynn had neglected to tell Pence that he and the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, had discussed lifting sanctions briefly on December 29th. Then Pence went on TV and claimed, incorrectly, that sanctions had never come up in Flynn’s chat. Flynn’s deception had damaged Pence’s credibility. He had to pay.
But that story was never believable. If Trump cared so much about Pence being fully informed, why did he choose to keep him in the dark about Flynn’s sanctions talk for more than two weeks after Trump himself found out? And if misleading Pence was such a gross offense by Flynn, why didn’t Trump drop the axe on him before WaPo published details of Flynn’s call with Kislyak on February 9th, forcing Trump’s hand? If the White House was committed to Flynn, it could have very easily spun Flynn’s goof as a lapse in memory, not a deliberate deception. E.g., “Apparently the ambassador broached the subject of sanctions, NSA Flynn replied noncommittally, and the conversation moved on to a wide array of topics. It was understandable under the circumstances that NSA Flynn might not remember that detail.”
The truth, pretty obviously, is that Trump and his team were looking for an excuse to pull the trapdoor on Flynn. The snafu over Kislyak and sanctions gave it to them. And now the NYT has three administration sources confirming just that:
When Mr. Flynn was fired in mid-February, Mr. Trump and White House officials said he had misled the vice president about his conversations with Mr. Kislyak, which led to an embarrassing television appearance in which an oblivious Mr. Pence defended Mr. Flynn’s conduct.
In reality, Mr. Trump — convinced by Mr. Bannon, Mr. Priebus and Mr. Kushner — had already decided that Mr. Flynn was a liability, and was eager to find an excuse to get rid of him, according to three administration officials familiar with the episode.
Mr. Pence was a lot less upset about how the episode was publicly portrayed — and happily provided the president and his staff with a plausible explanation for getting rid of Mr. Flynn, the officials said, even though it made the vice president appear out of touch.
That’s from a story about the lengths to which Pence is willing to go to be a “team player,” apparently up to and including happily serving as a pretext to cashier the sitting NSA. Anyway, an obvious question: Why was Team Trump so eager to dump Flynn even before the episode in which he misled Pence? Read this post from February 15th, speculating that the Flynn/Pence conflict was in fact just a pretext to get rid of Flynn, for some theories why. Flynn had rubbed everyone the wrong way — he was, allegedly, aggressive in trying to micromanage personnel decisions made by cabinet chiefs, especially Mattis, and Bannon may have seen him as a rival for control over the direction of national security policy. Flynn was also prone last year to giving the campaign occasional black eyes via his flirtations with conspiracy theories.
And there were other liabilities, unknown to the public at the time but not unknown to the White House, that may have had them looking for a way to push him out ASAP. Flynn was already long gone, for instance, by the time we the people found out that he had never registered as a foreign lobbyist for Turkey last year, as federal law required. It was just four days ago that former CIA chief James Woolsey revealed that Flynn had been present at a meeting last year with Turkish officials in which the subject had come up of somehow removing Fethullah Gulen, an Erdogan nemesis and permanent resident of the U.S., from his home in Pennsylvania and sending him to Turkey. (Flynn denies this.) If the White House knew that there were Flynn-related scandals to come, go figure that they would have seized on him misleading Pence as a capital offense in order to get rid of him early.
In fact, there seem to have been so many Flynn-related headaches inside the White House, whether current or impending, that it’s fair to ask: Did anyone on Team Trump provide the details to WaPo for its fateful story about Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak on February 9th? In other words, for all of Trump’s grumbling about leaks, was Flynn himself the victim of a White-House-orchestrated leak? Remember, the White House had already learned by then via Sally Yates and the DOJ of what Flynn and Kislyak had discussed. If they were eager to usher him out for other reasons, it would have been easy for Priebus or Bannon to nudge some “official” in the know to go call the Post and tell them about Flynn’s sanctions chitchat. There’s no proof, of course. Just a theory, but a plausible one under the circumstances.
Exit question: A CNN commentator speculated over the weekend that if Flynn is in any legal trouble, whether due to his conversation with Kislyak or his failure to register as a foreign lobbyist, he’d have an incentive to roll over and hand the feds any dirt he has on the Trump White House. How do you suppose today’s Times story affects his calculations about that?