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Is President Trump on the brink of a new Watergate?

US Politics
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Michael Flynn listens to Donald Trump during a session with cyber security experts in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on January 31.
Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Michael Flynn listens to Donald Trump during a session with cyber security experts in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on January 31.
After a scandal-filled week in Washington, Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser has invited renewed scrutiny of President Trump’s ties with Russia.
D ogged by scandal, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, President Trump’s national security adviser, was forced to resign this week. His departure reveals a White House in turmoil and shines fresh light on the Trump administration’s murky connections with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The White House cited an “eroding level of trust” as precipitating Mr. Flynn’s resignation, yet this does not tell the full story. 
A damning Washington Post report on February 10 revealed that Mr. Flynn had lied to Vice-President Mike Pence by claiming not to have discussed sanctions in conversations with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the US. In his resignation letter, Mr. Flynn confirmed that he had “inadvertently briefed the vice-president elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador”. 
In his final days in office, Barack Obama announced new sanctions on Moscow for its alleged interference in the election, expelling 35 Russian diplomats and shuttering two compounds. Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, soon said there was “no doubt” that Russia’s “adequate and mirror response will make Washington officials feel very uncomfortable”. 
Yet Mr. Putin’s official statement was remarkably magnanimous. Moscow, it said, “will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump administration”, and would not expel any Americans in response. Mr. Obama’s tit would not receive any tat. Unsurprisingly, this was greeted with glee by President-elect Trump: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” 
A passerby photographs a mural showing US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vilnius, Lithuania
A passerby photographs a mural showing US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Vilnius, Lithuania. Sean Gallup/Getty Images
What caused the Kremlin to perform such a dramatic volte-face? The Post disclosed that Mr. Flynn called Ambassador Kislyak between the Obama and Putin statements and reassured the Russian government that everything would be smoothed out by Mr. Trump once he took office. He could face prosecution under a 1799 law barring private citizens from conducting foreign policy.

 Trump and Russia 

This raises many questions. Principally, what did President Trump know about Mr. Flynn’s contacts with Russia, and when did he know it? Sally Yates (then filling in as attorney general) apparently told White House officials that she was concerned about Mr. Flynn’s communications two weeks ago, claiming that he was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail. The White House declined to act.
It was only after the press revealed sanctions had been discussed that Mr. Trump forced Mr. Flynn to tender his resignation. It seems the president was comfortable retaining a national security adviser who had actively worked to undermine his predecessor. Did he instruct Mr. Flynn to raise sanctions with the ambassador in the first place? In a surreal press conference on Thursday afternoon President Trump denied that he had directed General Flynn to contact Ambassador Kislyak, adding that “Mike was just doing his job”, and he “would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it.”
As the Flynn debacle was unfolding, new findings corroborated parts of a controversial dossier compiled on President Trump by Christopher Steele, a former British spy. Its first claim, that Russian intelligence had acquired compromising material on Mr. Trump, remains unproven. But the second, that members of the Trump campaign had repeated contact with senior Russian intelligence officials in the runup to the election, was substantiated by the New York Times on February 14. Despite President Trump’s assertion on Thursday that “Russia is fake news”, the findings will doubtless reinvigorate efforts to verify the remainder of the dossier. 

 America’s missile crises 

To many, Mr. Flynn’s departure came as no surprise despite his many decorations. Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, chief of staff to Colin Powell when he was George W. Bush’s secretary of state, told TWW that he “had neither the intellect, the temperament, nor the character - let alone the experience - to be national security advisor.”
Donald Trump speaks with Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office, surrounded by members of his inner circle
Donald Trump speaks with Vladimir Putin in the Oval Office, surrounded by members of his inner circle. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Shortcomings aside, the resignation heaps further scrutiny on a national security apparatus beset by turmoil. In all likelihood it will strengthen the hand of Defence Secretary Jim Mattis. Mr. Mattis has adopted a much harder line on Moscow, which may make rapprochement more difficult.
President Trump’s attempts to move past the scandal will not be helped by the news that his preferred replacement for Mr. Flynn - retired vice-admiral Robert Harward, a close ally of Mr. Mattis - has turned down the role. Mr. Harward said his decision was personal rather than professional, but that will do little to assuage those, like Senator John McCain, who are concerned by the “dysfunction” of the Trump administration’s national security operation.
Whoever does eventually replace General Flynn will have little time to get their feet under the table. This week it emerged that Russia has secretly deployed a new cruise missile, which US officials say violates an arms control treaty. This fresh challenge, on the back of a missile test conducted by North Korea on February 11, comes as the Trump administration is still struggling to fill key positions at the Pentagon and the State Department.

 A Nixonian week 

Mr. Flynn’s resignation has given fresh impetus to those who believe that the 45th president of the United States is a modern-day Manchurian Candidate. Paul Frymer, a political scientist at Princeton, told TWW that both the media and the Democrats “smell blood”.
The New York Times and the Washington Post, he said, “are both putting a lot of resources into this investigation”, which is bearing fruit because of “an ample number of people in the administration who are willing to leak information.” President Trump seems to agree, taking to Twitter to lambast “the real scandal” - “that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy.”
Mr. Trump has not enjoyed the honeymoon period typically afforded to new presidents. A Pew Institute poll puts his approval rating at just 39%, making him already the most unpopular president in US history. President Trump has proved remarkably impervious to scandal, so it would be rash to think that impeachment is imminent. Nonetheless, says Mr. Frymer, “once the media smells a new Watergate, it’s hard to stop them from pursuing it to the end”.
Henry Goodwin
The World Weekly
16 February 2017 - last edited 6 days ago