Michael Flynn, National Security Advisor to U.S. President Donald J. Trump, attends a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 10 February 2017.
JIM LO SCALZO/EPA

The White House’s Michael Flynn problem reaches a tipping point

Updated
The Rachel Maddow Show, 2/10/17, 9:16 PM ET

Magnitude of Trump adviser Flynn's Russia scandal gains clarity

Rachel Maddow reports on the still-developing scandal that Donald Trump national security adviser, Mike Flynn, reportedly discussed U.S. sanctions with Russia before Trump was in office, and that communication existed during the campaign.
Multiple reports from late last week indicate that White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, despite repeated denials from leading members of Donald Trump’s team, spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions before Inauguration Day. Flynn, who previously insisted no such conversations took place, is now saying he’s not sure whether sanctions came up during his calls with Kislyak or not.

The scandal is starting to snowball, and as the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who first broke the news of Flynn’s calls a month ago, noted in a new column over the weekend, there’s no shortage of questions in need of answers.
Michael Flynn’s real problem isn’t the Logan Act, an obscure and probably unenforceable 1799 statute that bars private meddling in foreign policy disputes. It’s whether President Trump’s national security adviser sought to hide from his colleagues and the nation a pre-inauguration discussion with the Russian government about sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing.

“It’s far less significant if he violated the Logan Act and far more significant if he willfully misled this country,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, in a telephone interview late Friday. “Why would he conceal the nature of the call unless he was conscious of wrongdoing?”
That’s a good question, and it’s one of many.

Why did Vice President Mike Pence, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and Press Secretary Sean Spicer tell the public Flynn didn’t talk about sanctions with the Russian ambassador?

There are really only two possibilities: Either Flynn told his colleagues a lie, which they repeated because they believed him, or Flynn told them the truth, and they chose to help cover up his alleged wrongdoing.

For his part, Pence and his office have gone out of their way to say that the vice president relied entirely on Flynn’s word when he addressed the subject publicly. In other words, the VP is arguing that he was lied to, not that he did the lying.

If the White House national security advisor misled his own West Wing colleagues, how can he keep his job?

When Trump World lies to the American electorate, the president and his team don’t seem to mind. When top officials on Team Trump lie to each other, it seems likely to create an untenable dynamic. Then again, this president hates admitting mistakes, so traditional rules and common sense may not apply.

What does Donald Trump have to say about this?

So far, alarmingly little. Despite the uproar on Friday, the president spoke briefly to reporters on Friday aboard Air Force One, where he claimed to have no idea what story journalists were even referring to. “I don’t know about that, I haven’t seen it,” Trump said. “What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.”

To hear Trump tell it, the White House national security advisor is accused of having potentially illegal talks with Russia, but the president was, and is, out of the loop.

If the allegations are true, is it possible Flynn was freelancing without Trump’s involvement?

It seems hard to believe that Flynn, one of Trump’s closest advisors, had multiple communications with Russia, but he did so without any guidance or instructions from his boss, who at the time was the incoming president of the United States. Moreover, if evidence emerges that Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders, this scandal is going to take an even more dramatic turn.

Is there some kind of potentially incriminating tweet that should be part of the mix?

Actually, yes. On Dec. 28, President Obama took actions against Russia in response to Moscow’s role in undermining the American elections. On Dec. 29, Flynn allegedly had multiple conversations with the Russian ambassador, including a chat about the sanctions. On Dec. 30, Vladimir Putin announced he wouldn’t retaliate in kind, prompting Trump to hail the Russian president’s “great move,” adding, “I always knew he was very smart!” (Trump pinned the tweet so it would be the first thing readers saw on his Twitter profile.) What are the chances Trump didn’t speak to Flynn about any of this as the developments unfolded?

The question, “What did the president know and when did he know it” may be a Watergate-era cliché, but in this case, it’s also an important line of inquiry.

What are congressional Democrats saying and doing about all of this?

Quite a bit. Leading Dems in both chambers have pushed for Flynn to be fired, investigated, or both. Several others have demanded that the administration pull Flynn’s security clearance, at least until the matter is resolved.

What about congressional Republicans?

GOP leaders have said effectively nothing about the scandal.

If the allegations against Flynn are correct, why did he lie?

For now, it’s very hard to say. Maybe he thought no one would find out. Perhaps didn’t fully appreciate the implications of his communications. But if there’s any evidence that Trump encouraged him to lie, buckle up.

If the reports are accurate and Flynn keeps his job, what kind of signal would that send?

It would make it quite clear that Trump is, at a minimum, comfortable with Flynn’s alleged misdeeds, and possibly that Flynn acted with Trump’s backing.

Did we learn anything new on the Sunday shows?

NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Stephen Miller, a top Trump aide, on “Meet the Press” whether Flynn still enjoys the president’s confidence. Miller wouldn’t answer the question directly.

What’s next?

The Washington Post reports this morning that Flynn “is under increasing political pressure and risks losing the confidence of some colleagues…. Privately, some administration officials said that Flynn’s position has weakened and support for him has eroded largely because of a belief that he was disingenuous about Russia and therefore could not be fully trusted going forward.”

The piece quoted an unnamed administration official who said, “The knives are out for Flynn.”

Donald Trump, Russia, Scandals and White House

The White House's Michael Flynn problem reaches a tipping point

Updated