Donald Trump’s national security adviser Mike Flynn is the first casualty of the Trump campaign’s dalliance with Russia during the election. His resignation raises new questions about possible collaboration with the Kremlin’s effort to destabilize and influence the Trump administration.
Flynn was apparently the Kremlin’s main Trump campaign contact who had several conversations with Russia’s U.S. ambassador during the election and afterward as a member of the transition team.
His involvement raises questions whether he was acting alone or with the knowledge–and at the possible direction–of President Trump, Vice President Pence and other key administration officials.
The official line so far is that Flynn misled Pence about the nature of the calls, denying that he discussed the possible lifting of sanctions imposed by the Obama administration to punish Russia for meddling in the election.
But U.S. intelligence agencies had definitive proof, apparently based on recorded conversations, that sanctions were discussed.
At the very least, Flynn was out of line and possibly in violation of a law that prohibits private citizens from conducting foreign policy on behalf of the United States.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he “inadvertently” briefed Pence and others with “incomplete information” about the nature of the discussions.
But among the questions left unanswered is whether a “quid pro quo” was discussed to lift sanctions in exchange for Russian involvement in the election on Trump’s behalf.
U.S. Intelligence agencies concluded “with a high degree of certainty” last September that Russia was behind the hacking of emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hilary Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
The emails were released through Wikileaks during the campaign and were cited by Trump repeatedly during stump speeches to discredit Clinton, even though they were stolen.
Flynn’s involvement with Russia and other questionable activities were well publicized during and after the election and confirmed by a senior Russian diplomat.
“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. “… I cannot say that all of them but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives.”
The contacts “were on a sufficient, responsible level,” Ryabkov said in an interview with the state-run Interfax news agency.
Nonetheless, Trump appointed Flynn as National Security Adviser.
Trump took no action after concerns over Flynn’s involvement were raised last month by the U.S. Justice Department.
Flynn resigned only after an explosive story published in The Washington Post detailed Justice Department warnings that Flynn was susceptible to Russian blackmail over his lies about the nature of his conversations.
In the weeks following the Justice Department warning, Flynn continued to attend national security briefings and had top secret clearance up until yesterday, according to Trump counsel Kellyanne Conway.
Yesterday, Conway asserted that the president had “full confidence” in Flynn.
The scandal also has implications beyond the United States.
In Russia, a high-ranking official, Sergei Mikhailov, was arrested for treason for allegedly working for the United States. Mikhailov served in the Federal Security Service, or FSB, Center for Information Security, according to The New York Times.
The agency’s cyber-intelligence branch has been implicated by U.S. intelligence officials in the American election hacking.
A Russian cyber-security expert at a firm that works closely with the FSB (the successor to the KGB) has also been arrested, according to The Associated Press.
Ruslan Stoyanov, head of the computer incidents investigations unit at Kaspersky Labs, was arrested in December along with Mikhailov. He also faces treason charges.
In another move believed to be part of the shakeup, Andrei Gerasimov, head of the FSB’s Information Security Center, was fired, reportedly for corruption-related reasons.
Since then, two Russian newspapers have reported that Mikhailov is suspected of being a US asset cooperating with U.S. intelligence agencies.
If so, how was Mikhailov compromised?
Did US intelligence agencies somehow lead to his exposure, or did higher ups in the Trump administration?
Flynn and other close advisers to President Trump being scrutinized for ties to Russia had access to information through national security briefings.
They could have blown Mikhailov’s cover to hide their own ties to the hacking by undermining U.S. intelligence agencies’ access to inside information.
Flynn’s ties to Russia were well known.
The retired general has been courted and groomed by Margarita Simonyan the Editor-in-Chief of RT (formally known as Russia Today), the Russian government propaganda network.
In 2015, RT served as one of the Kremlin’s primary tools to deny its invasion of eastern Ukraine and its role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.
Flynn took part in a paid speaking event in Russia at about the same time and became a semi-regular guest on RT.
He attended RT’s 10 anniversary gala and sat just a few seats away from Putin, attesting to his importance as an intelligence asset to the Russian propaganda effort.
He has appeared on RT programs numerous times arguing for better relations between the U.S. and Russia. He’s been an advocate for Russia on news programs in the United States.
It’s still unclear how aggressively congressional committees, the Justice Department or U.S. intelligence agencies will pursue investigations into Trump’s Russian ties.