Michael Flynn’s sudden resignation from the National Security Council may seem unprecedented. It’s not. But the consequences of his conduct may lead the United States into uncharted waters.
Two of President Ronald Reagan’s national security counselors, Robert McFarlane and John Poindexter, left in disgrace. They were schemers in the secret sale of arms to Iran and the skimming of profits for rebel forces in Central America, violating American foreign policy and common sense.
Nor were Mr. Flynn’s now notorious private conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak an unheard-of event. The most famous national security adviser of all, Henry Kissinger, met a K.G.B. spy at the Soviet Embassy in Washington 18 days before Richard Nixon’s inauguration in 1969. The Kremlin wanted “open channels of communication,” he told the president-elect. Nixon, at his swearing-in, addressed Moscow thus: “Our lines of communication will be open.”
Here the stories diverge. Say what you will about Mr. Kissinger and his less illustrious predecessors, they were only following orders. In Mr. Flynn’s case, though, these questions arise: Has he been working with a Russian script? He has a reputation for straying off the reservation — how far did he stray?
Two men have the power and the will to compel his testimony under oath. One is Senator John McCain, a Cold Warrior who dislikes the idea of cozying up to the Kremlin and is preparing for hearings on Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Mr. Flynn should expect a subpoena any day now.
The other is James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mr. Kissinger, no fool, cleared his talks in 1969 with Moscow’s man in Washington beforehand with the highest authority, J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director. Mr. Flynn, needless to say, did not check in with Mr. Comey before his conversations with Ambassador Kislyak seven weeks ago. He had good reason for that.
The F.B.I. has been looking into Mr. Flynn‘s relationships with Russians, which include his accepting payments from the Russian news organization RT, President Vladimir Putin’s propaganda machine, and appearing as Mr. Putin’s honored guest at a televised banquet in 2015. A few months later, he signed on with the Trump campaign. As Election Day neared, he was tweeting lies about Hillary Clinton and chanting, “Lock her up!”
At the same time, the F.B.I. and the C.I.A. have concluded of late, the Kremlin was undertaking a sophisticated clandestine operation to promote Mr. Trump and destabilize Western democracies.
Evidently, F.B.I. counterintelligence agents were alarmed when they read the wiretap transcripts of Mr. Flynn’s Christmastime chats with the Russian ambassador. He appeared to reassure the Kremlin not to worry about the Obama administration’s sanctions, and that once Mr. Trump was in office and Mr. Flynn took over at the N.S.C., the nerve center for secret intelligence at the White House, things would be better for the Russians.
After President Trump was sworn in on Jan. 20, Mr. Comey pondered the possibility that the Russians could blackmail the new national security adviser. He took his concerns to his immediate superior — the acting attorney general of the United States, Sally Yates — and she, in turn, went directly to the White House and relayed that warning. You remember Sally Yates. President Trump fired her on Jan. 30. Now he has had to fire Mr. Flynn.
We know that Mr. Flynn has had some troubles with the truth before. He became infamous while running the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014 for what his subordinates called “Flynn facts” — statements with a shaky basis in reality. He has lied to superiors, including Vice President Pence, more than once, in particular about his talks with Moscow’s man in Washington.
And we now know that F.B.I. agents interviewed Mr. Flynn about those same talks shortly after Inauguration Day. Lying to the F.B.I. is punishable by five years in prison. Mr. Flynn may be guilty of no crime beyond bad judgment. But this case is no longer about him and his relationship with the truth. The bureau wants to know whether members of the Trump campaign were in cahoots with the Kremlin in a covert crusade on behalf of their candidate, and so does Senator McCain.
Meanwhile, the president is preoccupied with another issue. “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” he tweeted on Tuesday.
It’s been a long time, but remember this: The road to Watergate and the resignation of Richard Nixon began in April 1969, three months after his inauguration, when the president ordered Mr. Kissinger to wiretap members of his own staff in an effort to stop embarrassing leaks of secret information. One thing led to another until the commander in chief was athwart the Constitution.
It’s been barely three weeks since the Trump team took office, and a distinct aroma has started wafting out of Washington, what Mr. Kissinger is said to have called “the odious smell of truth.”
Tim Weiner, a former national security correspondent for The New York Times, is the author of “Enemies: A History of the F.B.I.” and “One Man Against the World: The Tragedy of Richard Nixon.”
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