Quid pro quo, Clarice. Quid pro quo.
The Russian Presidency–domestic, not foreign–is back in the news with National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
The early Trump supporter, former Defense Intelligence Agency chief, analyst for Russia Today, and pal of Vladimir Putin apparently “sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.”
Conducting foreign policy when another president is in office probably violates the Logan Act, but no one’s particularly worried about that. The law has never been tested. The concern has more to do with 1) the cover up, and 2) the Trump Administration’s troubling connection to Russia and Vladimir Putin.
Electoral-vote.com has good synopsis of the issue:
During the campaign, then National Security Adviser-designate Mike Flynn chatted with officials in the Russian government, most prominently Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. This was a no-no, but Flynn brushed it off, and said that nothing of substance was discussed. He specifically denied that there had been any discussion of the sanctions the Obama Administration imposed on Russia; a denial that was then angrily reiterated by members of the Trump team, most notably Mike Pence. Flynn repeated his denials as recently as Wednesday of this week. Then, the Washington Post published a story in which nine different intelligence officials, speaking off the record, said that Flynn had indeed discussed the sanctions with the Russian government (presumably making a promise that they would be overturned by Trump). Shortly after the publication of the Post story, Flynn changed his story, and said he simply could not recall what he and Kislyak had discussed.
When first reported, Flynn’s pre-election discussions came off as just another part of the Trump Administration’s abnormalization of American politics. Now,
The very best case scenario here is that Flynn broke the rules, had a months-long brain cramp thereafter, and then conveniently got uncramped in short order when it became absolutely necessary. This seems implausible. The more likely explanation is that he lied, multiple times, until he was caught—very possibly ensnaring an unwitting Mike Pence in the process.
One way or another, Flynn will be gone. MSNBC just reported that Flynn’s departure that NOT “imminent,” according to the White House. Talk about a non-denial denial. It’s one thing to lie to the public in the Trump Administration, but it’s another to your colleagues, which is apparently what Flynn did to VOTUS Mike Pence.
The weirdness of all this is that the Intelligence Community (IC) is all over this. The FBI, CIA, NSA, and a couple of IC members are presently investigating connections between the Trump campaign and Russia. Flynn is certainly part of the investigation.
Even weirder, as one former NSA analyst notes, is that “Our spy services conduct signals intelligence—SIGINT for short—against the Russian embassy in Washington, just as the Russians do against our embassy in Moscow.” They may already know what Flynn said and when he said it.
Democrats aren’t lying down for this, judging by the flood of leaks and multiple corroborations of the Flynn flap. California Congressman Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that, “if General Flynn secretly discussed with Russia undermining U.S. sanctions, and misled American people, he can no longer serve.”
This week, the CIA made clear its opinion Flynn by denying clearance to one of his top aides.
It’s All About the Sanctions
Trump’s involvement with Russia and Putin remains a question mark. As Steve Benen notes about the Flynn fiasco, “The question, ‘What did the president know and when did he know it’ may be a Watergate-era cliché, but in this case, it’s also an important line of inquiry.”
In his endorsement of Hillary Clinton, former CIA deputy and acting director Mike Morrell wrote, “In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.”
Putin could have developed Trump for several purposes. Our president needn’t have a specific purpose to prove useful to the Russian dictator, but it seems unlikely that Trump would do anything without there being an advantage to himself. Mental health aside, Donald Trump’s narcissism is clear, his behavior and responses predictable. He is not a man who makes friends with a Russian autocrat for nothing. He doesn’t end up surrounded by Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Michael Flynn by accident. So what does Trump get out of it lifting sanctions with Russia?
We know that the Russians worked hard on the behalf of the Trump campaign. The now infamous Russia Dossier, which is proving more reliable than some commentators gave it credit for, alleges that Russia has compromising information on our president. Somewhere in the Kremlin there may indeed be video evidence of Trump watching Russian hookers pee, but evidence of Trump’s financial shenanigans in foreign countries is more likely and potentially criminal. The carrot and stick aren’t mutually exclusive. Russia stands to make a lot of money–enough to share with Trump–if sanctions are lifted.
There’s no way of knowing if Carter Page and his associates were allegedly offered the brokerage of the 19% stake in Rosneft (the recently privatized Russian oil company), as the Russian Dossier alleges. Rosneft signed a deal on December 7 to sell 19.5% of shares, or roughly $11 billion, to the multinational commodity trader Glencore Plc and Qatar’s state-owned wealth fund. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund is Glencore’s largest shareholder. The percentage of shares mentioned in the dossier and eventually sold to Qatar are curiously similar to the alleged offer made to Page.
Michael Flynn may be part of the fire, but this scandal is smoke. The important question is, what is the motivation for Trump’s involvement with Putin and Russia? Is it a carrot (a Russian oligarch purchased a Florida mansion that he has never stepped foot in for more than twice the $40 million price Trump paid for it) or a stick in the form of some sort of kompromat or both? Trump is a quid pro quo guy. Even if he sometimes skips the quid.