WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump should thank his lucky stars that Republicans control both chambers of Congress, because Democrats would be announcing a Benghazi-style inquest this week if they could.
Michael Flynn lost his job as national security adviser after just 24 days less because he offered potentially illegal secret assurances to Russia's ambassador, an adversary of the United States, but because he gave an inaccurate accounting of those conversations to his colleagues in the White House, particularly Vice President Mike Pence.
This imbroglio will make it politically untenable for Trump to scale back sanctions on Moscow now. The blowback from hawkish Republicans in the Senate would be too intense, hobbling the rest of the president's agenda. The episode will probably give added momentum to John McCain's effort to codify existing sanctions into law so that the administration cannot unilaterally unwind them.
But there is much we still do not know. Here are 10 questions that have become critical in the wake of last night's news:
1. What, if anything, did Trump authorize Flynn to tell the Russians before his inauguration?
2. Why was Trump planning to stand by Flynn? "One senior White House official said that Trump did not fire Flynn; rather, Flynn made the decision to resign on his own late Monday evening because of what this official said was 'the cumulative effect' of damaging news coverage about his conversations with the Russian envoy," The Washington Post's Greg Miller and Philip Rucker report. "This official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly about the situation, said Trump does not relish firing people - despite his television persona on 'The Apprentice' - and had intended to wait several more days before deciding whether to seek Flynn's resignation. 'There obviously were a lot of issues, but the president was hanging in there,' this official said."
3. What did White House counsel Donald McGahn do after the then-acting attorney general notified him last month that Flynn was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail? "In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared (Sally) Yates's concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House," Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima and Philip Rucker report. "They feared that 'Flynn had put himself in a compromising position' and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled. . . . Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynn's comments in the intercepted call to be 'highly significant' and 'potentially illegal,' according to an official familiar with her thinking. . . . A senior Trump administration official said before Flynn's resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that 'we've been working on this for weeks.' "
Yates was accompanied by a senior career national security official when she alerted McGahn. What we don't know is who McGahn subsequently shared that information with and what he did after the meeting. He didn't respond to a request for comment last night from my colleagues.
"It's unimaginable that the White House general counsel would sit on it (and) not tell anybody else in the White House," said David Gergen, who worked in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations. "In every White House I've ever been in, this would go to the president like that," he added during an interview on CNN, snapping his fingers.
If McGahn did indeed tell others, especially the president, how come Flynn kept his job until Monday night?
4. What is the status of the FBI investigation into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia? FBI Director James Comey initially opposed Yates notifying McGahn, citing concerns that it could complicate the bureau's ongoing investigation. "A turning point came after Jan. 23, when (Sean) Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynn's communications with (Ambassador Sergey) Kislyak," The Post reports. "Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue 'again last night.' There was just 'one call,' Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation. Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House." Yates then spoke to McGahn.
5. Will Spicer and Pence apologize for making false statements to the American people? There is no doubt that both men would have called on their counterparts in the Obama administration to do so if the shoe was on the other foot, even if the falsehoods were unintentional. Their future credibility depends on coming clean and being contrite.
In his resignation letter, Flynn noted that he apologized to Pence and others: "Because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the President and the Vice President, and they have accepted my apology." Will those he apologized to pay it forward to the rest of us? (Read Flynn's one-page letter here.)
6. Will Flynn face prosecution under the Logan Act? Yates and other intelligence officials suspected that Flynn could be in violation of the obscure 1799 statute, which bars U.S. citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with another country. But no one has ever been prosecuted under that law, so it is very, very unlikely.
Another mitigating factor: Jeff Sessions got confirmed as attorney general despite refusing to commit to recuse himself from Justice inquiries into Trump and other administration officials.
7. What will the Senate Intelligence Committee uncover about contacts Flynn and others affiliated with Trump had with Russia before the election? U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, several sources have said. Communications between the two continued after Nov. 8. The Russian ambassador has even confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, though he declined to say what was discussed.
The committee led by Chairman Richard Burr, R-N.C., is continuing to explore Russian efforts to interfere with the election, including the intelligence community's assessment that the Kremlin was attempting to tilt the election to Trump. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a member of the committee, told reporters a few hours before Flynn resigned that his contacts with the Russian ambassador are part of the bipartisan inquiry. "This and anything else that involves the Russians," Rubio said, per Kelsey Snell. "We're going to go wherever the truth leads us."
8. Who replaces Flynn? Trump has named Keith Kellogg, a decorated retired Army lieutenant general, as acting national security adviser. Sources say that he is one of three candidates Trump is considering as a permanent replacement. The others are former CIA director David H. Petraeus and Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of the U.S. Central Command.
Two White House sources tell The Washington Post's Robert Costa that Harward emerged overnight as the front-runner to get the post. (Pence is leading the discussions.) He is seen as a safe and steady, low-profile consensus pick, which is appealing after the tumult that swirled around Flynn. Harward worked on the NSC during George W. Bush's presidency, focused on counterterrorism strategy. He's from Rhode Island and attended the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He's worked on SEAL teams and was a commander in Afghanistan and Iraq.
If Trump settles on Harward - always an "if" with Trump - that's a huge win for Jim Mattis. He served under the secretary of defense back when he was at Central Command and remains both an ally and friend. Harward has been under consideration as a possible undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
9. Who else leaves the White House because Flynn is gone? Flynn's departure means that the people he brought with him are likely to go too. The new national security adviser will want his own loyalists. Kellogg is considered a Flynn guy, the New York Times notes, as is K.T. McFarland, the deputy national security adviser. She is expected to leave soon.
10. Who exactly is in charge at the White House? Monday was just the latest illustration of the chaos and dysfunction that plague the infant administration. Officials found themselves in an uncomfortable holding pattern for much of Monday, unsure about whether to defend Flynn and privately grumbling about the president's indecisiveness.
"After Trump made it through a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau without being asked about Flynn, a group of reporters gathered outside Spicer's office for more than 80 minutes," The Post's Ashley Parker and Philip Rucker report. "Spicer twice declined to answer questions about Flynn. When chief of staff Reince Priebus walked by, he was asked whether the president still had confidence in Flynn. Priebus gave no answer. Then, a few minutes later, Kellyanne Conway, the counselor to the president, declared on MSNBC that Trump had 'full confidence' in Flynn. Yet a few minutes later after that, Spicer issued an official - and conflicting - statement, saying Trump was 'evaluating the situation.' " A few hours after that, Flynn was gone.
Conservative columnist Michael Gerson, a veteran of George W. Bush's White House, opens his column Tuesday with a damning anecdote: Last month, House Speaker Paul Ryan met with a delegation from the president-elect on tax reform. Attending were Priebus, Conway, Stephen Bannon, Jared Kushner and Stephen Miller. As the meeting began, Ryan pointedly asked, "Who's in charge?" There was silence.
"It is still the right question," Gerson writes. "Former officials with deep knowledge of the presidency describe Trump's White House staff as top-heavy, with five or six power centers and little vertical structure. 'The desire to be a big shot is overrunning any sense of team,' says one experienced Republican. 'This will cause terrible dysfunction, distraction, disloyalty and leaks.' "