WASHINGTON — Gen. Mike Flynn provided the first scalp in the Trump administration in record time — he served as White House National Security Adviser for 23 fleeting days before he resigned Monday night. In the eyes of President Donald Trump, Flynn could be his team's first casualty of "fake news."
As Trump told reporters at his epic press conference Thursday, he asked for Flynn's resignation because Flynn didn't tell Vice President Mike Pence that he may have discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador during the transition period. Pence then told CBS' "Face the Nation," that of course Flynn had not discussed possibly lifting sanctions with the ambassador.
Flynn "didn't have to do that, because what he did wasn't wrong," Trump maintained.
Some critics contend that any discussion of sanctions with Russian officials would have been a felony under the Logan Act, which prohibits citizens from freelancing on foreign policy to prevent them from undermining the policies of an incumbent president. The thing is, no American has ever been prosecuted under that dubious law.
But if reporters are concerned about violations of the law, Trump continued, they ought to look at the federal officials who leaked his phone conversations with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull. The calls are supposed to confidential, but someone leaked them. Trump added, "The same thing happened with respect from Gen. Flynn."
You see, a Justice Department and intelligence official had notified the White House legal counsel that Flynn had not leveled with administration higher-ups about what Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and he discussed. (How did intelligence officials know what Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak discussed? They apparently stumbled onto the conversation because they tapped Russian communications.)
Flynn resigned, according to Trump, because he misled Pence. But the timing — weeks after the White House had been alerted and on the day the Washington Post reported on the disclosure — suggests that Flynn had to go, not because he misled Pence in a very public way, but because he got caught doing so.
And yet, Trump has a point on the leaks. As Bloomberg columnist and national security expert Eli Lake wrote, "Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do." It's not pretty when bureaucrats decide to use their power to undermine elected officials.
The Flynn revelation follows a trail of leaks and questionable stories. Most notably, there is the smarmy and discredited Buzzfeed post of a so-called dossier on Trump and his associates' fictional ties with Russia.
The New York Times could not corroborate the same dossier and did not report on it. Yet the Times just ran a front-page story with the headline, "Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contact With Russian Intelligence."
The sources were unnamed — "four current or former American officials" — but named four individuals, including Flynn, reportedly under investigation. Otherwise the story provided a feast of innuendo: "The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump's advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself."
That's mighty thin gruel for the Gray Lady's front page. As far as Trump is concerned, the story is part of the glut of "fake news" fabricated to credit Russian intelligence for Wikileaks of emails from Hillary Clinton associates and thus discredit his win in the Electoral College.
The Wikileaks emails were embarrassing — especially for former CNN contributor Donna Brazile, who passed on presidential debate questions to the Clinton camp — but it's hard to see those small-change revelations determining the outcome of the election.
Washington and the news media are divided between those who are convinced the Russians helped Trump win — which would de-legitimize his victory — and those who, like Trump Thursday, are convinced the Russian spin is bogus.
The news media have run many stories that hint that Putin's Russia wanted to help Trump win. To date, however, no story has firmly established that Russia did more than make mischief.
That could change. "There's no hard facts yet about who talked to the Russians" or what they might have said, noted Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton. Davis sees "a lot of sourcing without facts."
But then, he added, "These kinds of stories drive out facts."
Or they fizzle.
Either way, Flynn is out.