195: Michael Flynn and Russia

Chris Spangle, Gregory Lenz, and Seth discuss the Michael Flynn resignation and the growing Trump/Russia controversy.

Show Notes:

General Flynn’s verifiable Russian ties:

1. On December 10, 2015, RT (which was previously known as Russia Today) celebrated its 10th anniversary with a gala event. Flynn was there, just 18 months after he stepped down as the Director of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, a role Obama nominated him for. He sat next to RT editor in chief Margarita Simonyan and was just a few seats away from Putin.

Politico reports that Flynn has since made several appearances on the network, typically arguing that the U.S. and Russia need to work more closely together to fight the Islamic State and trying to find an end to the Syrian Civil War.

2. Flynn’s typical RT talking point is that the U.S. and Russia have to work together to end the civil war in Syria.

“When we play this sort of bully game against each other, between the United States and Russia and that’s going to achieve nothing,” Flynn says in the segment above. “I mean, it’s actually going to achieve more conflict.”

The reason why the U.S. and Russia haven’t seen eye-to-eye on Syria is because the U.S. believes that Russia is helping dictator Bashar al-Assad stay in power.

“Russia has its own national security strategy, and we have to respect that,” Flynn once said on RT. “And we have to try to figure out: How do we combine the United States’ national security strategy along with Russia’s national security strategy, despite all the challenges that we face?”

3. In the January 2016 London Review of Books issue, Seymour M. Hersh wrote that Flynn told him that he sent a “constant stream” of warnings to the Obama administration about how dangerous it would be to topple the Assad regime. He said that “jihadists” controlled the opposition and Turkey wasn’t stopping the smuggling of foreign fighters into Syria. Patrick Lang, a retired army colonel, told Seymour that Flynn was “shoved out” by the Obama administration. Flynn himself said that the civilian leadership “did not want to hear the truth.”

After he left the Pentagon, Flynn began offering ideas for how to solve the crisis in Syria, and not just on RT. In a November 2015 interview with Der Spiegel, Flynn said:

“We have to work constructively with Russia. Whether we like it or not, Russia made a decision to be there (in Syria) and to act militarily. They are there, and this has dramatically changed the dynamic. So you can’t say Russia is bad, they have to go home. It’s not going to happen. Get real.”

4. In an interview with Politico in October 2016, Flynn said that he does think Putin is “a totalitarian dictator and a thug who does not have our interests in mind” and called Trump’s praise of Putin “overstated”
However, he continued:

“But Putin is smart and savvy, and he has taken actions in Ukraine and elsewhere that have limited our options, and the U.S. and NATO response has been timid. I think Trump’s strength lies in being a master negotiator, and he wants as many options as possible in dealing with Russia”

5. Flynn has been advising Trump since February 2016, Reuters reported at the time. In August, after Trump officially became the Republican party’s presidential nominee, Flynn was with Trump at his first classified briefing. On November 16, NBC News confirmed that Flynn already has security clearance to sit in on future briefings, now that Trump is president-elect.

From the Houston Chronicle (my opinion too):

General Flynn’s error was not that he discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian before the inauguration — a potential violation of a rarely enforced law — but the fact that he denied it for weeks, apparently misleading Vice President Mike Pence and other senior Trump aides about the nature of the conversations. White House officials said they conducted a thorough review of Flynn’s interactions, including transcripts of calls secretly recorded by U.S. intelligence officials, but found nothing illegal.

Pence, who had vouched for Flynn in a televised interview, is said to have been angry and deeply frustrated.

And Trump lashed out at the news media Wednesday morning, sending out a tweet berating some news organizations for focusing on “This Russian connection non-sense.” In a post on his verified Twitter account, Trump said, “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred.” He added that the news reporting was “merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”

Trump also asserted in a tweet: “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.”

“Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia.”

At the White House Tuesday, press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters: “The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable incidents is what led the president to ask General Flynn for his resignation.”

Key Points & Timeline

  • The FBI in late December reviewed intercepts of communications between the Russian ambassador to the United States and retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn — national security adviser to then-President-elect Trump — but has not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government, U.S. officials said.
  • Although Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were listened to, Flynn himself is not the active target of an investigation, U.S. officials said. The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that U.S. counterintelligence agents had investigated the communications between Flynn and Kislyak.Of particular note was a Dec. 29 telephone conversation, initiated in an exchange of text messages the day before.
  • Trump officials previously had said the call took place on the 28th. On the 29th, the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia and expelled 35 officials from the Russian Embassy in response to what the U.S. intelligence community has said was interference in the presidential election on Trump’s behalf.
  • In remarks when the Dec. 28 call was first reported this month, Spicer and other officials said there had been no mention of the sanctions that were announced the next day. On Monday, he said he was unaware of any other conversations between Flynn and members of the Russian government. Spicer said he asked Flynn if there had been conversations with any other Russian officials “beyond the ambassador. He said no.”
  • Although Flynn has written critically about Russia, he also was paid to deliver a speech at a 2015 Moscow gala for RT, the Kremlin-sponsored international television station, at which he was seated next to Putin.
  • The FBI’s counterintelligence agents listen to calls all the time that do not pertain to any open investigation, current and former law enforcement officials said.
  • After that, the F.B.I. asked the N.S.A. to collect as much information as possible about the Russian operatives on the phone calls, and to search through troves of previous intercepted communications that had not been analyzed.
  • The F.B.I. has closely examined at least three other people close to Mr. Trump, although it is unclear if their calls were intercepted. They are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign; Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative; and Mr. Flynn.
  • As part of the inquiry, the F.B.I. is also trying to assess the credibility of the information contained in a dossier that was given to the bureau last year by a former British intelligence operative. The dossier contained a raft of allegations of a broad conspiracy between Mr. Trump, his associates and the Russian government. It also included unsubstantiated claims that the Russians had embarrassing videos that could be used to blackmail Mr. Trump.
  • The F.B.I. has spent several months investigating the leads in the dossier, but has yet to confirm any of its most explosive claims.
  • The acting attorney general, Sally Yates who refused to defend Trump’s immigration executive order, informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.
  • Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that ­Flynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the ­Russian diplomat, had told Vice ­President-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said.
  • In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared Yates’s concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House. They feared that “Flynn had put himself in a compromising position” and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled.
  • In a Feb. 8 interview with The Washington Post, Flynn categorically denied discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
  • One day after the interview, Flynn revised his account, telling The Post through a spokesman that he “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
  • Flynn told The Post earlier this month that he first met Kislyak in 2013, when Flynn was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and made a trip to Moscow.
  • For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec. 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlin’s interference in the election in an attempt to help Trump.
  • After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response.
  • Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn.
  • From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing ­Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.
  • Yates and other intelligence officials suspected that Flynn could be in violation of an obscure U.S. statute known as the Logan Act, which bars U.S. citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with another country.
  • At the same time, Yates and other law enforcement officials knew there was little chance of bringing against Flynn a case related to the Logan Act, a statute that has never been used in a prosecution.
  • White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in a conference call with reporters on Jan. 13, said that the conversation between Flynn and Kislyak had “centered on the logistics” of a post-inauguration call between Trump and Putin. “That was it, plain and simple,” Spicer added.
  • On Jan. 15, Pence was asked about the phone call during an appearance on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” Citing a conversation he had with Flynn, Pence said the incoming national security adviser and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
  • Before the Pence statement on Jan. 15, top Justice Department and intelligence officials had discussed whether the incoming Trump White House should be notified about the contents of the Flynn-Kislyak communications.
  • Pence’s statement on CBS made the issue more urgent, current and former officials said, because U.S. intelligence agencies had reason to believe that Russia was aware that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions in their December call, contrary to public statements.
  • The internal debate over how to handle the intelligence on Flynn and Kislyak came to a head on Jan. 19, Obama’s last full day in office.
  • Yates, Clapper and Brennan argued for briefing the incoming administration so the new president could decide how to deal with the matter. The officials discussed options, including telling Pence, the incoming White House counsel, the incoming chief of staff or Trump himself.
  • Yates stayed on as acting attorney general until Jan. 30, when Trump fired her for refusing to defend his executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries
  • A turning point came after Jan. 23, when Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn’s communications with Kislyak.
  • Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue “again last night.” There was just “one call,” Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump.
  • Trump declined to publicly back his national security adviser after the news broke.
  • On Monday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Trump had “full confidence” in Flynn. Minutes later, however, Spicer delivered a contradictory statement to ­reporters.
  • “The president is evaluating the situation,” Spicer’s statement read. “He’s speaking to Vice President Pence relative to the conversation the vice president had with Gen. Flynn and also speaking to various other people about what he considers the single most important subject there is: Our national security.”
  • And then late Monday, Flynn resigned.

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