Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn arrives at Trump Tower, Nov. 17, 2016. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and high level positions for the new administration. 
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

Counterintelligence investigation into Team Trump casts a wide net

The morning of Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, the New York Times published a striking front-page report: multiple U.S. agencies “are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links” between Russian officials and Trump’s close associates.

According to the reporting, the counterintelligence investigation is focused on contacts between Moscow and members of Trump’s campaign team, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, former foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and longtime Republican operative Roger Stone.

NBC News added later in the day that the FBI is not only part of a multi-agency investigation into Russia’s alleged intervention in the American presidential campaign, but U.S. officials are also “examining how the operation was paid for and whether any Americans were involved.”

The report went on to say, “One former intelligence official briefed on the matter said the investigation is looking into whether certain former Trump campaign aides had improper contacts with the Russians.”

It’s against this backdrop that the Wall Street Journal pushed this story forward overnight.
U.S. counterintelligence agents have investigated communications that President Donald Trump’s national security adviser had with Russian officials, according to people familiar with the matter.

Michael Flynn is the first person inside the White House under Mr. Trump whose communications are known to have faced scrutiny as part of investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency and Treasury Department to determine the extent of Russian government contacts with people close to Mr. Trump.

It isn’t clear when the counterintelligence inquiry began, whether it produced any incriminating evidence or if it is continuing. Mr. Flynn, a retired general who became national security adviser with Mr. Trump’s inauguration, plays a key role in setting U.S. policy toward Russia.
[Update: CNN is reporting that the investigation into Flynn’s talks with Russia is ongoing.]

If the reporting is accurate, it’s a major development. While Manafort, Page, and Stone played key roles in Trump’s campaign operation, none of them has an official role in the White House now. Flynn, however, is also allegedly being investigated – and he has an office in the West Wing.

Some backstory is probably in order. Nearly two weeks ago, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported:
Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s choice for national security adviser, cultivates close Russian contacts. He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.”

According to a senior U.S. government official, Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking. What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about “disputes” with the United States. Was its spirit violated? The Trump campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s team later insisted there was nothing untoward about the communications, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Flynn and Kislyak merely spoke to coordinate upcoming conversations between the American and Russian presidents.

It appears that the officials overseeing the multi-agency investigation aren’t sure whether that defense is true. Some Democratic senators have already questioned whether Trump’s national security adviser should have his security clearance reexamined, and if Flynn is under investigation, those questions are likely to grow louder.

As we discussed last week, Flynn is already butting heads with some top members of Trump’s team, and these latest revelations will only hurt his standing further. If there’s a pool on which member of the White House team is most likely to depart first, keep a close eye on the controversial national security adviser.