The Center Cannot Hold

So let’s talk about Michael Flynn. It’s hard to keep up with all this, so a quick recap: Flynn is a lifer in the the Army, makes Lieutenant General, and serves for two years as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama. The DIA coordinates military intelligence and acts, kind of, as the Department of Defense’s version of the CIA. Military spooks.

Flynn gets forced out of the DIA in 2014. Inside sources, including Colin Powell, say that it’s because of a chaotic leadership style in which he was “abusive with staff, didn’t listen, worked against policy, bad management, etc.” Flynn alleged he’d been made to leave because of his controversial views on security, namely that the Us was less safe from terrorism now than before 9/11 and that the President wasn’t saying the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ enough.

Flynn starts an intelligence consulting firm along with his son, which, along with whatever else it does, seems to have been lobbying for the government of Turkish president Erdogan, a religious authoritarian, in Washington. Through 2014 and 2015, Flynn makes multiple appearances as an analyst on the Russian state-owned English-language propaganda arm, RT. RT masquerades as a news agency in the US.

In the same way that any scientist who regularly appears on Fox News is pretty reliably morally compromised, any member of the Us military establishment who’s flexible enough to appear on RT is probably too flexible to be trusted. RT is a big cheerleader for Donald Trump and is now one of the few outlets, like Fox and Breitbart, that qualify as ‘real’ news among the Republican base.

In 2015, Flynn flies to Russia to attend an RT gala and give a talk, for which he is paid by the Russian government.

That’s Mike Flynn dead center and Putin just to his right. Yeah.

While Flynn informs the DIA that he’s going abroad, he does not file paperwork for the money. This is an issue because former military officials cannot accept cash from foreign governments under the Emoluments Clause without explicit permission from the Congress. This is currently under investigation.

In 2016, Flynn gets involved as an advisor on the Trump campaign. At the GOP Convention, he gives a bloody-minded speech and ends by chanting “Lock her up!” along with the crowd. There are a lot of words to describe that performance, but I’ll just like the video and let you decide if it’s behavior becoming of an officer and a gentleman.

In November, Donald Trump names Flynn as his pick for National Security Advisor. The NSA is an interesting post—they don’t have much or sometimes any real authority over any department or particular portfolio. What they’re supposed to do is collect and coordinate information from all the alphabet agencies and give the president impartial advice regarding national security decisions. The NSA has a certain amount of real power, though, which stems from his or her daily contact with the president during briefings. Likewise, an NSA who decided not to be an honest broker and to push a particular personal agenda would have pretty broad leeway to do so.

So here’s where it gets messy. Vice President-elect Mike Pence gets asked on television in early December if Mike Flynn’s son has a security clearance as part of the transition. Mike Flynn’s kid is into whacked out conspiracy theories like Pizza Gate, so this wouldn’t look too good (leave aside why these optics are bad when the Administration is fine with Mike Flynn himself on record claiming that Florida Democrats have voted to institute Sharia law, among other anti-Islamic and anti-Semitic stuff is beyond me).

Mike Pence tells the press that Flynn’s kid is in no way getting clearance as part of the transition. Later that day he reads in the news that Mike Flynn has indeed requested clearance for his kid, and that he hadn’t told the transition team about it. Mike Pence of course already knew that he hadn’t told the team, because Flynn had told Pence to his face that he wasn’t getting a clearance for his son.

On the 25th of December, Flynn texts the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, to wish him a merry Christmas. Flynn is apparently pretty close to Kislyak, either because of his time at the DIA or his time at RT, and they communicate regularly.

After Christmas, President Obama imposes sanctions on Russia in response to the intelligence community’s report that Russia had in fact interfered in the 2016 presidential election. The same day, Mike Flynn places five calls to ambassador Kislyak. The next morning, Vladimir Putin, rather than immediately responding in kind to the US sanctions, the way that Russian presidents and premiers have done since the 1950s, publicly announces that he’ll delay any decision, expecting that the Trump administration will be more accommodating. Trump gets on Twitter to say:

On January 12, David Ignatius at the Washington Post makes the first mention of Flynn’s phone calls in the press. He also points out that any diplomatic communication between a private citizen and a foreign government is a violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits contact with a foreign government “with an intent to influence its measures or conduct in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States.” Mike Flynn in late December was a private citizen, not a member of the government of the US.

Press Secretary and Vice President Elect Sean Spicer and Mike Pence get in front of cameras on 13 and 15 January to say that Flynn categorically did not discuss sanctions on his calls with ambassador Kislyak.

Now, unsecured calls to and from the Russian and I imagine many other embassies are routinely wiretapped by the NSA, this time the National Security Agency, not Advisor. The FBI, suspicious about what Flynn and company were saying about the calls, obtained those wiretaps and then scheduled an interview with Flynn on January 24th. The transcripts indicated that Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak, but that the language was vague, and could be read as either innocuous or damning. In his interview with the FBI agents, Flynn denied having discussed sanctions at all. Lying to the FBI is itself a federal crime.

Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General that Trump fired because she wouldn’t support the travel ban, reaches out to the White House on the 26th of January. Flynn publicly lying about the content of the calls would make him vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians, who of course had the full content of the conversations. Yates advised that Flynn was a security risk for the Administration.

Which means that the White house knew as early as 26 January that Flynn was lying about the calls and that other elements of the government were aware. Remember that. On February 9th, the Washington Post reports on a leak from the Intelligence Community that confirms that Flynn did in fact discuss sanctions on the calls. Mike Pence reads that coverage, goes to the White House, and only then discovers that Sally Yates made contact two weeks before and that Flynn has for a second time caused him to unknowingly lie on national television. And for the second time, he’s had to find out about it in the papers.

On February 13th, Kellyanne Conway tells MSNBC that Flynn has the president’s full confidence. In the evening, Sean Spicer says during a press conference that the president is ‘evaluating’ his position with regard to Flynn. And then that night, Mike Flynn turns in a letter of resignation.

“Because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice Present Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.” This was Mike Flynn’s explanation of what happened, and it began falling apart the moment it went public.

The official line from the White House to the press currently is that Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation because of a slowly “evolving and eroding level of trust” which stemmed from Flynn misleading Pence about the calls. Now, the NYT reported that it was actually Bannon who asked for the letter, and Kellyanne Conway said that Flynn himself made the decision to resign, but those both seem more like the faction infighting and disinformation that are typical of this administration rather than real wrinkles in the story.

What really doesn’t square is that Sally Yates warned the White House two full weeks before the resignation. How could it be a slow erosion of confidence if Trump knew about the calls as early as the 26th of January? What seems more likely is that Trump knew about the calls all along and that the revelation on 26 January was only relevant because it meant other, disloyal, people in the government knew. Likewise, and this has also come out through leaks, Trump pushed Flynn out by the 13th not because of him lying to Pence but because ongoing news coverage of Flynn’s calls was making his position untenable.

Even more, and this is a line that Talking Points Memo and Ken Gude of the Center for American Progress, among others, have been following, is that it makes no sense that Flynn was acting alone in calling the Ambassador about the sanctions.

Spicer awkwardly asserted a few key claims [in a press conference on the 14th] – that President Trump did not authorize the sanctions conversation with the Russian Ambassador and that he did not know about it until the DOJ warning. These were not categorical denials. But Spicer found his way to denying them. But throughout, Spicer conspicuously did not say that the Flynn misled the President. This is not an accident. It’s a key to the story. It simply makes no sense and most likely means the President knew what had happened all along…

The consistent theme of Spicer’s argument was that there was no legal or substantive problem with what Flynn did. Indeed, the President “instinctively” knew it was okay. The only issue was that Flynn misled the Vice President and others. In other words, there’s no “Russia” issue here at all, simply an internal White House issue of the President losing confidence in the honesty of a key staffer. This is demonstrably not true. The need to insist it is strongly suggests that others in the White House, namely the President, is implicated in the Russia issue. Otherwise, it would make political sense and be eminently fair to toss Flynn to the wolves…

Everything about this story suggests that the White House has many secrets to hide and little of the time to prepare, the competence to execute or the cooperation of the President to hide them effectively.

The story makes no sense. That’s because it’s not true. They didn’t even have enough time to concoct a tight cover story.

Trump’s platform has been thoroughly pro-Russian since the beginning of the primary, and Flynn had nothing to gain by negotiating with the Russians during the transition unless Trump was going to follow through once he was President. That is, it wasn’t just an ugly coincidence that Trump took to Twitter to congratulate Putin on delaying action on US sanctions the day after Flynn’s flurry of calls to Kislyak, but a coordinated effort by the transition team to coordinate policy with Moscow before they were in the Oval.

Pence was out of the loop because he’s an actual Republican, the respectable face of the administration towards its more traditional base. Flynn had to go not because of any maverick conduct on the calls but because he got caught.

Paul Ryan’s response to this was predictable:

But to everyone’s surprise, both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Senator Roy Blunt both called for an investigation that would “leave no stone unturned (cont’)”. What’s notable is that the one stone they want to leave unturned is Flynn himself, and they haven’t called for him to testify.

So it may be that their talk about investigation is just a way to head off Democrats like Mark Warner, who have said that “It would be very appropriate for Mr. Flynn, now that he has resigned, to testify…we need to know what he knows. Not just in terms of these conversations. Clearly he indicated by his own admission that he did not fully disclose information to the Vice President. I think there is more to come on this subject.” Democrats want to put Flynn under oath and see if he’ll stay loyal and go full Oliver North, or whether there are more shoes he’ll let drop, and Senatorial Republicans, led by the long-scruple-less McConnell, are trying to blunt that drive.

Fox’s coverage, by the way, the ‘news’ that a good half of Americans rely on, didn’t exactly go deep on the Flynn story.


Now, What to Think About All This?

The real far-out explanation is that Bannon and Trump are literal Russian plants in the White House and that they’re pursuing a pro-Russian agenda at the behest of the Kremlin.

That’s a long shot, given Trump’s lifelong commitment to only himself. What seems more plausible to me is something a little subtler, and for that reason maybe more sinister. Both David Frum in the Atlantic and Doug Muder in this week’s Sift have posited that Trump might be angling for a Potemkin democracy.

The appeal of Potemkin democracy. While America as a nation is not experiencing the kind of despair and defeat that leads to totalitarianism, many groups within America have seen a long-term decline in their influence and status, with no end in sight. Many members of these groups are deeply nostalgic, and prior to Trump’s election felt the kind of hopelessness that yearns for radical change.

…many of them experience that pseudo-persecution intensely, and believe it is being thrown in their faces constantly: when their doctrines are no longer taught or their prayers recited in public schools; when they have to compete in the workplace on near-equal terms with blacks and immigrants and women; when courts take the side of gay couples against the Christians who want to discriminate against them; when they express their distress in public and do not see their problems move immediately to the top of the agenda; when history classes call attention to the flaws of their heroes, or to the contributions of members of other groups; and on many other occasions. Those who look for these insults to their pride, and seek out media that highlights and exaggerates them, can find something every day.

These are the people who make up the bulk of Trump’s base, and who will be willing to watch democracy crumble if it allows them to regain the privileges they believe are rightfully theirs. While the extreme edge of this group contains open white supremacists, theocratic Dominionists, and even self-proclaimed Nazis, for the most part its members are not that radical: They’re happy with an American-style democracy as long as they’re comfortably in the majority and the elected government favors them. That’s what they’re nostalgic for.

But as they have sunk towards minority status, more extreme methods have begun to appeal: suppressing other voters in the guise of preventing “voter fraud”, gerrymandering legislative districts so that their minority of votes can dominate Congress and the state legislatures, shutting down immigration from people not like them, suppressing protest with police violence, and so on.

For the most part, their ideal America would be a Potemkin democracy. It would have the appearance of free institutions: elections, media not directly controlled by the government, opposition politicians not in jail, and so on. But the outcomes of those elections would never be in doubt, and democratic methods would never be sufficient to achieve equality for non-whites, non-Christians, or those that white Christians disapprove of (like gays).

It might be that there’s no real conspiracy going on, but a kind of natural ideological drift. Regimes tend to align and ally themselves with ideologically similar regimes, and for a long time it’s been us and the UK, us and Europe. So Trump cozying up to Russia and Turkey and the rest doesn’t need to be an Ian-Fleming style Cold War betrayal. POTUS and his team want a United States that looks more like Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey, and they’re naturally starting to sidle up to the authoritarians in the global cafeteria, looking for a seat at the table.

Edit (2/22/2017)

Yeah, up there when I said it’s hard to see what Trump has to gain? That was rank ignorance on my part. Medium put up a timeline of Trump’s Russia connection since the mid 1980s, and it’s clear that he has had and will continue to have a lot to gain from the Russian connection. It’s more than worthwhile to go and read at least the earliest entries in that list, because it shows how long-standing this is.

Choice quote?

Sep 1987 Trump pays 94K for anti-NATO full page newspaper ads in several major American newspapers.

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