White House Faces Clamor to Explain Russia Contacts After Flynn’s Departure

Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security advisor didn’t end questions about the Trump administration’s dealings with Moscow -- it supercharged them.

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14:  White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer  participates in a White House daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room February 14, 2017 at the White House in Washington, DC. Spicer discussed various topics including the resignation of Michael Flynn from his position as National Security Adviser.  (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 14: White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer participates in a White House daily press briefing at the James Brady Press Briefing Room February 14, 2017 at the White House in Washington, DC. Spicer discussed various topics including the resignation of Michael Flynn from his position as National Security Adviser. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

An embattled White House faced growing demands from lawmakers Tuesday to explain its contacts with Russia, one day after national security advisor Michael Flynn was forced to resign for lying about the nature of his conversations with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington.

Flynn’s sacking — the third Trump advisor accused of questionable ties or contacts with Russia forced to step aside — failed to extinguish mounting political pressure on the Trump administration over its dealings with Russia and its consistently friendly rhetoric on Moscow.

Instead, the White House struggled to answer a cascade of questions over who else, if anyone, in the administration may have endorsed Flynn’s overtures to Russia to possibly lift some U.S. sanctions, as well whether there had been other inappropriate or illegal communications with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government before or after the 2016 presidential election.

For the first time, several senior Republicans, including the second-highest ranking member of the Senate, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, joined calls Tuesday by Democrats for a thorough inquiry into the nature of the Trump team’s contacts with Russia, and that Flynn should be investigated. 

Sen. John Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who has tended to avoid criticizing the Trump administration, said revelations about Flynn would “add momentum” to congressional investigations into Russia’s interference in the presidential election.

And Sen. Roy Blunt (R.-Mo.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said lawmakers needed to speak to Flynn and ask: “What did he know? What did he do? And is there any reason to believe that anybody knew that and didn’t take the kind of action they should have taken?”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R.-S.C.), often an outspoken critic of the new president, told CNN a key question was whether Flynn was acting on orders.

“I think most Americans have a right to know whether or not this was a General Flynn rogue maneuver, or was he basically speaking for somebody else in the White House?” Graham said.

But other Republicans scotched the notion of broader inquiries or ordering Flynn to testify, saying the case was effectively closed. Sen Rand Paul (R.-Ky.) said that investigating fellow Republicans “makes no sense” and House Speaker Paul Ryan (R.-Wis.) said there was no need to investigate Flynn as the White House had made the right decision and asked him to resign.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) dismissed the idea of using his position as chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to pursue Flynn’s case, saying “that seems to have resolved itself with the White House taking some decisive action.” (His panel, however, has inquired why the government is using Sid the Science Kid, a cartoon show on public television, to warn of the dangers of the Zika virus.)

Still, the calls for prompt investigations of Flynn from some senior GOP figures reflected growing unease in the Republican majority over the political fallout from the issue, even as the White House insisted there was no wider scandal behind the episode.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer told a news conference on Tuesday that the president had not instructed Flynn to raise the subject of U.S. sanctions in his communication with the Russian ambassador, and rejected accusations that Trump or his aides had in any way colluded with Moscow before or after the November election.

When asked if Trump had told Flynn to raise the sanctions issue with the Russian ambassador, Spicer said: “No, absolutely not.”

The press secretary also pushed back against the idea that Trump is too soft on Moscow, saying that the president had been “incredibly tough on Russia.”

Spicer also was grilled by reporters about why the president had chosen to keep Flynn in his job three weeks after the Justice Department informed the White House that Flynn had given a misleading account of his phone conversations with the Russian diplomat, Sergey Kislyak, and that Flynn could be at risk of blackmail.

Spicer said it took time to review the legal questions but White House lawyers concluded Flynn had not broken the law. However, Trump in the end decided to ask for his resignation as it was “a matter of trust,” Spicer said, adding that he wasn’t aware of any other contacts by administration officials with the Russians. “As far as we were aware, it was an isolated incident,” he said.

Leading Democrats, however, said Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador could represent the tip of a proverbial iceberg.

“General Flynn’s resignation does not obviate the need for a broad investigation into Russia’s interference into the 2016 election and this administration’s opaque relationship with the Kremlin,” said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“I have significant questions about what President Trump knew about Mr. Flynn’s communications with Russia and when he knew it. I also have questions about the Trump campaign’s communication with Russian officials throughout last year’s election period,” Cardin said in a statement.

The Justice Department was so concerned about Flynn’s misleading accounts of his conversations with the Russian envoy that it warned the White House the retired general could be vulnerable to blackmail from Moscow. President Trump learned of the Justice Department’s concerns on Jan. 26. But Vice President Mike Pence was kept in the dark about the issue until Feb. 9, NBC News reported, illustrating the workings of an often dysfunctional White House.

Despite the Justice Department warning, the details of Flynn’s phone calls only came to light publicly after intelligence and other officials divulged them to the Washington Post and other news organizations.

President Trump, trying to shift the focus away from Flynn and his team’s possible ties to Russia, complained about officials leaking to the news media.

The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?” Trump tweeted.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a strong Trump supporter and chair of the House Intelligence Committee, also focused on the leaks and not Flynn’s actions. He said he would demand the FBI explain why it was eavesdropping on Flynn’s phone conversations with a Russian envoy and then leaking the details.

Legal experts say that it’s routine for the United States to eavesdrop on Russian diplomats and officials and Flynn, as a career military intelligence officer, would have been aware of that.

The Breitbart website, an ardent pro-Trump outlet formerly run by the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, alleged that officials who had been appointed by the Obama administration and who remained in government posts were acting to sabotage the new White House, describing them as “sleeper cells.”

In reality, the White House has asked some officials from the previous administration to stay on at the Defense Department and agencies as the Trump team has struggled to fill an array of senior positions, partly due to infighting between rival camps in the administration.

Apart from losing his job after less than a month in the position, Flynn also faces potential legal trouble depending on how he answered questions from FBI agents who interviewed him last month. Lying to federal investigators is a felony and likely would carry a prison sentence.

Before Flynn, two other Trump advisors previously had to step aside because of questions over their Russia ties. Paul Manafort resigned as Trump’s campaign manager in August, after a New York Times report alleged he had been paid $12.7 million for advising a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Carter Page left the campaign as an advisor over his pro-Russian statements and his consultant work in the Russian energy sector.

Manafort, the former campaign manager and lobbyist, appears in a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent about the Trump campaign’s alleged ties with Russia. U.S. intelligence agencies have not confirmed the dossier’s accuracy, but said last week they have managed to corroborate some elements of the documents. The Trump administration has called the dossier pure fiction.

The dossier alleges Manafort “managed” contacts between the campaign and Moscow and received “kickback payments” from former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych throughout last year.

Photo Credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images

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