Michael Flynn was a seriously dangerous man, and I am very relieved that he will no longer be in a position of power. But Damon Linker is absolutely right that the way he was brought down should worry everyone who cares about the health of American democracy:
Flynn’s ouster was a soft coup (or political assassination) engineered by anonymous intelligence community bureaucrats. The results might be salutary, but this isn’t the way a liberal democracy is supposed to function.
Unelected intelligence analysts work for the president, not the other way around. Far too many Trump critics appear not to care that these intelligence agents leaked highly sensitive information to the press — mostly because Trump critics are pleased with the result. “Finally,” they say, “someone took a stand to expose collusion between the Russians and a senior aide to the president!” It is indeed important that someone took such a stand. But it matters greatly who that someone is and how they take their stand. Members of the unelected, unaccountable intelligence community are not the right someone, especially when they target a senior aide to the president by leaking anonymously to newspapers the content of classified phone intercepts, where the unverified, unsubstantiated information can inflict politically fatal damage almost instantaneously.
The Eli Lake article that Linker links to is worth reading in full, but I’ll pull out a key section here:
The fact that the intercepts of Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak appear to have been widely distributed inside the government is a red flag.
Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told me Monday that he saw the leaks about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak as part of a pattern. “There does appear to be a well orchestrated effort to attack Flynn and others in the administration,” he said. “From the leaking of phone calls between the president and foreign leaders to what appears to be high-level FISA Court information, to the leaking of American citizens being denied security clearances, it looks like a pattern.”
Nunes said he was going to bring this up with the FBI, and ask the agency to investigate the leak and find out whether Flynn himself is a target of a law enforcement investigation. The Washington Post reported last month that Flynn was not the target of an FBI probe.
The background here is important. Three people once affiliated with Trump’s presidential campaign — Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone — are being investigated by the FBI and the intelligence community for their contacts with the Russian government. This is part of a wider inquiry into Russia’s role in hacking and distributing emails of leading Democrats before the election.
Flynn himself traveled in 2015 to Russia to attend a conference put on by the country’s propaganda network, RT. He has acknowledged he was paid through his speaker’s bureau for his appearance. That doesn’t look good, but it’s also not illegal in and of itself. All of this is to say there are many unanswered questions about Trump’s and his administration’s ties to Russia.
But that’s all these allegations are at this point: unanswered questions. It’s possible that Flynn has more ties to Russia that he had kept from the public and his colleagues. It’s also possible that a group of national security bureaucrats and former Obama officials are selectively leaking highly sensitive law enforcement information to undermine the elected government.
Here’s the thing: I understand why the bureaucracy and the intelligence agencies are behaving the way they are. It’s not just that they are opposed to Trump’s policies, or that they have personal reasons to hate Flynn or Bannon or anybody else on the Trump team. It’s that they are genuinely afraid that this administration is functionally a threat to national security because it contains highly placed individuals actively working for a foreign power or, at best, extremely senior people (including the President himself) who flagrantly disregard basic security precautions:
For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Since NSA provides something like 80 percent of the actionable intelligence in our government, what’s being kept from the White House may be very significant indeed. However, such concerns are widely shared across the IC, and NSA doesn’t appear to be the only agency withholding intelligence from the administration out of security fears.
What’s going on was explained lucidly by a senior Pentagon intelligence official, who stated that “since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the SITROOM,” meaning the White House Situation Room, the 5,500 square-foot conference room in the West Wing where the president and his top staffers get intelligence briefings. “There’s not much the Russians don’t know at this point,” the official added in wry frustration.
None of this has happened in Washington before. A White House with unsettling links to Moscow wasn’t something anybody in the Pentagon or the Intelligence Community even considered a possibility until a few months ago. Until Team Trump clarifies its strange relationship with the Kremlin, and starts working on its professional honesty, the IC will approach the administration with caution and concern.
When the press first started hyperventilating about Russia, I wrote a column about how we all needed to calm down — because my concern was that the focus was misplaced, because Russia isn’t the problem:
Russia’s alleged actions are entirely unsurprising and far from unprecedented. They are not only the kind of thing that Russia has done before, they are the kind of thing that we have done before — including in Russia’s neighborhood. Russia’s actions may well deserve a response — but the most important response would be to make cyber security a significantly higher priority. They certainly don’t merit panic about Russian intentions, or about the fragility of American institutions.
By contrast, the opacity of Trump’s financial relationships does remain a serious problem, and the possibility that he is personally subject to Russian “influence” because of financial liabilities held by Russian banks could taint any attempt to improve relations between our countries. And of course if the Trump campaign actually coordinated with Russia on dirty tricks, that would be a crime amply deserving investigation, and potentially impeachment.
Meanwhile, those arguing that Russia undermined the integrity of the American electoral system need to take a good look in the mirror. Nothing Russia did or didn’t do can come close to the damage that will potentially be done by exaggerating the extent and impact of that influence, much less creating a constitutional crisis in response.
It certainly looks at this point like major elements within the national security bureaucracy are prepared to create a constitutional crisis in response to what they believe is a serious and real threat to American national security from the White House itself. And there is really only one way to avoid such a crisis: for Congress to step up and begin the necessary investigations of the Trump administration.
I completely understand why a Republican Congress would be reluctant to do this. There’s not only the risk that they’d cripple their own party’s presidency; there’s the very real risk of retaliation by the Trump administration, and the President taking steps to mobilize his supporters against members of Congress that threaten him.
But that is not the only quarter from which threats may come. The GOP Congress is not going to be able to ignore an escalating war within the Executive branch. Nor can they discount the possibility of characters like Flynn engaging in their own freelance retaliatory schemes.
And, you know, there’s also our system of constitutional government, that old thing, which gives Congress the responsibility for dealing with corruption and other lawbreaking by the Executive.
I have no particular love for Senator Roy Blunt, but I’m glad he has come out for a full investigation of the administration’s Russia ties. I hope that the investigation focuses on exactly that: the nature, timing and appropriateness of any connections and communications. Because, again, the real problem isn’t Russia or the fact that Trump favors rapprochement; the problem is the real possibility of corruption and the plain fact of flagrant and dangerous incompetence.
And while they are at it, they can also start investigating the leaks. But it has to be both; if Congress focuses only on the leaks, and ignores or soft-pedals the administration’s behavior, they will contribute to the escalation of a growing constitutional crisis.