Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor Mike Flynn is in trouble. He lied to the administration and to the public and denied telling Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that the Trump administration would roll back the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia. Flynn is admitting now that he “may have” actually said that in a phone call last month and has apologized.
How do we know Flynn did it? Because the CIA taped the call and leaked the details. (The CIA was eavesdropping on the Russians, by the way, not on Flynn. It’s what the CIA does.)
And now the CIA is rejecting Flynn deputy Robin Townley’s security clearance which will surely terminate the deputy’s job on the National Security Council.
“They believe this is a hit job from inside the CIA on Flynn and the people close to him,” one anonymous source told Politico. Why might that be happening? Perhaps because, as another anonymous source who is apparently close to the president says, Flynn is waging “a jihad against the intelligence community.” Trump hasn’t played well with the intelligence community either. You may recall that he compared the CIA and the FBI to Nazi Germany before he was even inaugurated.
The swamp—permanent bipartisan Washington—doesn’t want to be drained. Not by Donald Trump. Not by anybody. And the swamp can strike back—especially the intelligence agencies.
Last November, shortly after Trump won the election, Eli Lake wrote a stirring defense of the Washington swamp for Bloomberg.
But before writing off the swamp entirely, it's worth thinking for a minute about the man we just elected president. While many Americans are no doubt elated, Trump campaigned at times like an authoritarian. He threatened his accusers with lawsuits. He banned members of the press from his events. He promised to jail his opponent, Hillary Clinton. He encouraged, at times, his audience to rough up protesters.
It may be that all of this banana republic bravado was for show. But if this is truly who Trump is, the country will need the permanent political and governing class to stop him. The leaks, slow-rolling and backstabbing that in normal times infuriate those who try to reform Washington will be the first line of defense.
That is exactly what’s happening now, and there is no sign that it’s going to stop.
And this is not strictly about some “jihad” Flynn and Trump are waging against the intelligence agencies. Plenty of others in Washington outside the CIA are fighting back too over the administration’s chumminess with Russia.
“Putin’s Russia is our adversary and moral opposite,” Republican senator John McCain wrote in an op-ed for USA Today on Monday this week. “It is committed to the destruction of the post-war, rule-based, world order built on American leadership and the primacy of our political and economic values…There is no placating Putin. There is no transforming him from a gangster to a responsible statesman. Previous administrations have tried and failed not because they didn’t try hard enough, but because Putin wants no part of it.”
“It’s as if a hostile foreign power has seized the US government and is by remote control steering it toward the maximum possible catastrophe,” former Bush administration official David Frum tweeted over the weekend.
Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD) says Flynn should lose his security clearance, and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says “we have a National Security Advisor who cannot be trusted not to put Putin before America. National security demands that General Flynn be fired immediately.”
That’s a bit much, and neither Pelosi nor Cummings are convincing national security hawks. One could be forgiven for assuming they are simply whacking the Trump administration with whatever partisan stick is at hand.
There should be no question, however, that the Trump administration, including Mike Flynn, is far too cozy with Russia. Even before Flynn said his boss could roll back American sanctions against Moscow, he was a guest on Kremlin propaganda channel RT (Russia Today). He sat next to Vladimir Putin at RT’s anniversary celebration, and he says he wants to partner with Russia in Syria.
Flynn is not, however, naïve, and contrary to Pelosi he does not put Putin’s interests before America’s.
I read Flynn’s book in November so you don’t have to. In it, he divides the world into two camps of hostiles—radical Islamists and what he calls “the alliance,” which includes Russia, Syria, North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela and Nicaragua. He understands perfectly well that Vladimir Putin is an enemy of the United States but wants to team up with the Russians anyway to fight ISIS. It’s a defensible position, but it’s of a piece with the Trump administration’s brazenly pro-Russian position.
Last year on “CBS This Morning,” Trump surrogate Newt Gingrich said “[NATO] countries ought to worry about our commitment. They ought to worry about commitment under any circumstances. Every president has been saying that the NATO countries do not pay their fair share…If Russia were to invade Estonia, I’m not sure I would risk a nuclear war over some place which is the suburbs of St. Petersburg.”
Unlike some countries in Europe, Estonia does “pay its fair share” of the NATO expense burden, which requires member states to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Estonia spends 2.16 percent while the US spends 3.61 percent. If Gingrich or his boss were to leave the responsible Estonians out to dry in the face of a Russian invasion, NATO would disintegrate overnight and Europe would face its greatest crisis since World War II.
Last summer, Trump said he may be willing to recognize Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region and lift American sanctions against Moscow. If the United States were to recognize Crimea as Russian, we would join a dubious club of rogue states that includes North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela but not a single Western democracy.
Putin, Trump says, is “very smart.” “I think in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A.” “It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond.” He effectively told NBC’s Matt Lauer that Putin was no worse than Barack Obama. “Do you want me to start naming some of the things that President Obama does at the same time?” he said when Lauer rattled off a list of Putin’s crimes.
Earlier this month on Fox News, Bill O’Reilly asked the president if he respects Putin. “I do respect him,” Trump said.
“Why?!” O’Reilly said, visibly shocked. “Putin’s a killer.”
“There are a lot of killers,” Trump said, sounding like a leftist who has read Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky and little else. “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Trump has been defending and even fawning over Vladimir Putin for a year now with remarkable consistency.
Little Estonia, meanwhile, is digging in and preparing to fight an anti-Russian insurgency by itself.
In 2013, Vladimir Putin gave our new Secretary of State Rex Tillerson Russia’s Order of Friendship award. That prize may not be as meaningful as some critics fear, but Tillerson’s experience up until now has been strictly limited to his time at the helm of ExxonMobil, a job he was selected for in part because of his close relationship with Russia.
And let’s not forget that Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort spent years working for Vladimir Putin’s Ukrainian pawn Viktor Yanukovych until he was toppled in the 2014 revolution, and that Trump’s former foreign policy advisor Carter Page has close ties to the Kremlin and Russian gas giant Gazprom.
“If you're not familiar with Gazprom,” Josh Marshall writes, “imagine if most or all of the US energy industry were rolled up into a single company and it were personally controlled by the US President who used it as a source of revenue and patronage. That is Gazprom's role in the Russian political and economic system. It is no exaggeration to say that you cannot be involved with Gazprom at the very high level which Page has been without being wholly in alignment with Putin's policies. Those ties also allow Putin to put Page out of business at any time.”
So with all that as prologue, news that Flynn discussed lifting the Obama administration’s sanctions against Russia and lied about it is, shall we say, a tad more sensitive than if he’d lied about something relatively innocuous like discussing a new NAFTA agreement with Canada.
Neither the intelligence agencies nor journalists nor the Democratic Party nor the Republican members of Congress who aren’t on the Trump Train are going to put up with this.