Late Monday evening, February 14, President Donald Trump’s newly-appointed national security advisor tendered his resignation, as a consequence of the public pressure concerning the already known phone conversations he had with the Russian ambassador to Washington between Christmas and New Year’s Eve last year. According to press articles, on the very day in which President Obama decided to adopt some sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the U.S. electoral process, Flynn called the Russian ambassador to wish him happy holidays according to the outgoing advisor’s initial version of events.
In the version shown to be true, according to recordings that came to the knowledge of the press, Flynn, yet to be appointed White House national security advisor at the time, assured his interlocutor that the swearing in of the new administration would positively solve the issue of sanctions on Russia. The press leaks, occurring throughout the several weeks that have passed since, prompted Flynn to gradually go from denying any mention of the sanctions during the conversation he had, to accepting the possibility of them being mentioned and then to admit the rumours by resigning.
In fact, recordings that are yet to be published but that were mentioned by some officials under the protection of anonymity prove that those are the facts, President Trump himself being recently warned from the helm of the attorney general’s office that, by discussing those things, Flynn, now national security advisor, exposes himself to Russian blackmail. In other words, he is a liability for the White House, one that must be removed.
What should we make of this resignation? As known, during last year’s presidential campaign, D. Trump and his team were accused of impermissible ties with Russia, including with persons at the top levels of the Kremlin – a photo showing Flynn sitting at the same table with Putin during an event in Moscow was frequently used by the press –, something that sensitised the strong U.S. public opinion. Of course, D. Trump’s team vehemently denied any speculations on this topic, deeming them destined to compromise his electoral chances. At the same time, he announced a dramatic shift in the relationship with Russia, toward a presumably unprecedented positive course.
In his generous tweets, which announced his political directions as U.S. President, Trump pointed out that an agreement and a partnership with Russia is needed to combat the global threat of terrorism, among others. In a series of three tweets posted on January 7, for instance, D. Trump stated that “having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only “stupid” people, or fools, would think that it is bad! We… have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now and…… both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD.” Simultaneously, however, President Trump was going after the media’s “fake news” on alleged guilty contacts with Russia, outright rejecting any business link or any other link with the Kremlin leadership.
In two tweets posted on January 11, D. Trump wrote that “Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is ‘A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE./…/Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!” It’s not pointless to note the fact that Flynn’s resignation was commented in harsh terms by Russian politicians of note. For instance, Senator Alexei Pushkov wrote on Twitter that “the mission isn’t Flynn, it’s relations with Russia,” while Leonid Slutsky, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Duma’s lower chamber commented that “the mission isn’t Flynn, it’s relations with Russia.”
How can one explain M. Flynn’s resignation? Persons close to the White House pointed out he was present at D. Trump’s meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in Florida last weekend, that on the day of his resignation he had a regular schedule at the White House, only for him to tender his resignation later that evening. He apologised both to the president and vice president for failing, in the heat of the moment, to properly inform them about the content of his talks with the Russian ambassador in the aforementioned context. For The Washington Post, which indeed has an anti-Trump orientation, Flynn’s resignation is only an attempt to hide a much more incriminating dossier for the president.
Thus, most of those who read the article announcing Flynn’s resignation in the daily’s Tuesday edition, which garnered almost 6,000 online comments in just a few hours, deemed that the event is nothing but “the tip of the iceberg.” For instance, a reader posted the following comment: “I don’t doubt for a minute that Trump ordered Flynn to engage the Russian ambassador in a conversation about sanctions imposed by Obama. The question is, will Flynn talk? We can be sure that the Republican Congress won’t want to investigate this. nobody else can compel him to testify under oath. So we have to wait and see. Maybe there are more revelations to come about additional NSA intercepts. This makes Watergate look like a childish Halloween prank.” Not few readers are wondering how much the president knows about what Flynn did in connection with the relationship with Russia: “This cannot be the end of any investigation. We cannot let the White House say ‘He’s gone – nothing to see here.’ Remember that question from Watergate? What does the President know and when did he know it? I bet Trump is well aware that communications with Russia have been going on since the campaign.”
Apart from such interesting opinions inspired by the anti-Trump movement that has grown in the U.S. under the slogan “resist,” some of them bordering on conspiracy theories, there are other explanations for Flynn’s resignation. One of them has to do with the power struggle within President Trump’s team, Flynn being the first victim of the assault launched by a group that wants to gain the dominant position of influence at the White House. Steve Bannon, the president’s main strategist, former head of Breitbart News – who removed the Chief of the General Staff from the team of advisors –, as well as Stephen Miller and Jared Kushner, D. Trump’s son-in-law, are allegedly part of this group. This group has set up a parallel National Security Council structure at the White House, generating policies and implementations without first consulting the agencies involved.
It seems the NSC staff, dissatisfied with the subordinate position assigned to it, has started to facilitate the leaking to the press of the content of the president’s talks with foreign leaders – as was the case of his talk with his Chinese counterpart or with the Australian Premier to mention but a few – which prompted D. Trump to order an investigation. Trump’s first tweet about Flynn’s resignation refers precisely to these leaks (February 15): “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?”
What is certain, and Flynn’s resignation – leaving aside the numerous interpretations – is proof in this sense, is that the future negotiations with Russia will not take place solely according to D. Trump’s will. The American political class and its institutions are showing a constant and growing preoccupation with making sure of this.