Top White House aide and policy adviser, Stephen Miller, sidestepped repeated chances during Sunday news shows to publicly defend embattled National Security Adviser Michael Flynn following reports that he engaged in conversations with Russian diplomat(s) about U.S. sanctions before Trump’s inauguration. The uncertainty came as Trump was dealing with North Korea’s apparent first missile launch of the year and his presidency, along with visits this week from the leaders of Israel and Canada.
Pressed repeatedly, Stephen Miller said it wasn’t up to him to say whether the president retains confidence in Flynn. “It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind,” he said on NBC. “That’s a question for the president.”
While Trump has yet to comment on the allegations against Flynn, the White House said in an anonymous statement Friday the president had full confidence in Flynn. But officials have been mum since then amid fallout from reports that Flynn addressed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call late last year. The report, which first appeared in The Washington Post, contradicted both Flynn’s previous denials, as well as those made by Vice President Mike Pence in a televised interview.
Now we know why the administration has been so quiet about the fate of Flynn. As the WSJ reports, the White House is reviewing “whether to retain Flynn amid a furor over his contacts with Russian officials before President Donald Trump took office, an administration official said Sunday.” Flynn has apologized to White House colleagues over the episode, which has created a rift with Vice President Mike Pence and diverted attention from the administration’s message to his own dealings, the official said.
“He’s apologized to everyone,” the official said of Mr. Flynn.
Still, the WSJ concedes that Trump’s views toward the matter aren’t clear. In recent days, he has privately told people the controversy surrounding Mr. Flynn is unwelcome, after he told reporters on Friday he would “look into” the disclosures. At the same time, Trump also has said he has confidence in Mr. Flynn and wants to “keep moving forward,” a person familiar with his thinking said. Close Trump adviser Steve Bannon had dinner with Mr. Flynn over the weekend, according to another senior administration official, and Bannon’s view is to keep him in the position but “be ready” to let him go, the first administration official said.
The paper also adds that Jard Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, hadn’t yet weighed in on Flynn’s future yet as of Sunday evening.
For those who may not have followed the story, Flynn initially said that in a conversation Dec. 29 with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, he didn’t discuss sanctions imposed that day by the outgoing Obama administration, which were levied in retaliation for alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Flynn now concedes that he did, administration officials said, after transcripts of his phone calls show as much. He also admits he spoke with the ambassador more than once on Dec. 29, despite weeks of the Trump team’s insisting it was just one phone call, officials said.
If Flynn had promised any easing of sanctions once Mr. Trump took office, he may have violated a law that prohibits private citizens from engaging in foreign policy, legal experts have said. That would mark the first instance of a person close to Mr. Trump found to have inappropriate links to Russia, a subject U.S. officials have been investigating for months.
U.S. intelligence services routinely intercept and monitor conversations with Russian diplomats, officials have said. While the transcripts of the conversations don’t show Mr. Flynn made any sort of promise to lift the sanctions once Mr. Trump took office, they show Flynn making more general comments about relations between the two countries improving under Mr. Trump, people familiar with them said.
Flynn’s alleged lies have angered VP Mike Pence, who in television interviews vouched for Flynn, administration officials said. Pence and Flynn spoke twice on Friday, one official said quoted by the WSJ.
Reince Priebus is leading the Trump administration’s review of Flynn.
Some administration officials are hopeful Mr. Flynn would resign on his own, a person familiar with the matter said. Some people close to Mr. Trump already are speculating on possible successors, including retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who advised Mr. Trump during the campaign and who is chief of staff of the National Security Council.
Jettisoning Mr. Flynn might end one controversy, but would potentially feed perceptions of a disorganized White House, some people close to Mr. Trump said. That’s one reason the White House might be hesitant to cut ties to Mr. Flynn, they added.
Meanwhile, Democrats smell blood and want Flynn out immediately.
As pressure built on White House officials, Democrats on Sunday pressed for an independent investigation into Mr. Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s ambassador.
“Either he was lying about discussing it or he forgot,” said Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), speaking Sunday on CNN. ”You don’t want a guy in either of those scenarios to be in that position.”
Franken has also called for an independent investigation into the Trump campaign’s and the administration’s ties to Russia, citing allegations of Kremlin interference in the 2016 U.S. election and Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, as candidates have done since the 1970s. “We don’t know what [Mr. Trump] owes Russia,” Mr. Franken said. “We don’t know how many Russian oligarchs have invested in his business.” At the same time Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D., R.I.), who lead the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subpanel on crime and terrorism, already have launched an investigation of Russia’s efforts to influence the U.S. election.
While the situation remains liquid, two things are certain: Trump will have a “kneejerk response” tweet momentarily, and the market will interpret this latest tremor inside the White House as even more bullish.