Report

‘Up to Their Asses in Alligators’: Trump White House on Defensive Amid Russia Probe

Revelations about the investigations of Trump’s Russia ties distract the administration at a key moment for the neophyte president.

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Just ten weeks into the Trump administration, the White House is in a defensive crouch after the former national security adviser asked for immunity from prosecution to testify, and reports emerged of national security aides feeding classified intelligence to a friendly lawmaker overseeing one of the investigations into the administration’s ties to Russia.

The continued focus from Congress, the FBI, and the media on those ties continue to dog the administration, even as President Donald Trump was hoping to turn a spotlight this week on tougher measures he rolled out on foreign trade, just ahead of a hugely important meeting next week with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Instead, in just 24 hours, what the administration repeatedly tried to dismiss as a “hoax” has gathered fresh momentum, raising the stakes for the ongoing investigation into whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russian intelligence operatives to tilt the 2016 U.S. election in his favor.

“When you’re up to your ass in alligators, it’s hard to remember your original intent was to drain the swamp,” one source close to the White House said in describing the mindset of National Security Council staffers.

Late Thursday, The Wall Street Journal reported that former national security adviser Michael Flynn is seeking immunity to testify about the investigation. But the exact parameters of that gambit remain shrouded in mystery. It is unclear what testimony Flynn is willing to divulge, and whether he is seeking full immunity from prosecution from the Justice Dept., or simply the ability to talk freely to Congress without having anything he says held against him later.

Also on Thursday, the New York Times reported that at least two White House aides helped funnel intelligence reports to Rep. Devin Nunes (R.-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, which is meant to be investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and allegations Trump aides may have conspired with that campaign. But Nunes cancelled this week’s hearings, and has nearly paralyzed the committee’s work.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Friday that Nunes’s visit to the White House last week to view those reports was appropriate and legal, and took place without the knowledge of senior administration officials.

“We don’t track every person who is on the 18 acres,” Spicer said, describing a White House office complex secured by intense security procedures. “Do we know, generally speaking, who’s in the Oval Office? Not all the time.”

Flynn — who made headlines at the Republican convention last summer by chanting “Lock her up!” about Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton — apparently is seeking immunity before speaking with investigators, though it is unclear at this stage what kind of information he might have about the inner workings of the Trump campaign or any possible ties to Russian intelligence.

“General Flynn certainly has a story to tell, and he very much wants to tell it, should circumstances permit,” Robert Kelner, a lawyer for Flynn said in a statement late Thursday. “No reasonable person, who has the benefit of advice from counsel, would submit to questioning in such a highly politicized, witch hunt environment without assurances against unfair prosecution.”

The statement offered no details about the terms of Flynn’s cooperation, nor what evidence he would divulge about Trump aides.

Writing on Twitter, Trump chimed in with some unsolicited legal advice:

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/847766558520856578

Flynn has accepted thousands of dollars from Russian firms in speaking fees, a move that may violate prohibitions on former military officers receiving payments from foreign governments. Congressional investigators have requested copies of paperwork submitted by Flynn to receive a security clearance to examine whether he fully disclosed payments received from Kremlin-linked firms. Flynn was also a registered lobbyist for Turkey while advising the Trump campaign, but failed to disclose that until this month.

Congressional officials and legal experts reacted with skepticism to Flynn’s offer of immunity, saying that the government would be foolish to grant the retired general anonymity at an early stage of their investigation.

Mark Zaid, a Washington lawyer with experience in national-security cases, called the offer a “smart legal strategy to not only protect the client but also to create a narrative that they can try to control” and said it was a typical maneuver in a case with political implications reaching the highest levels of American power.

“It was an opening salvo in a battle that is just beginning,” Zaid said. “This is a very typical maneuver in representing a high-profile, D.C., politically-charged case.”

If Flynn were to be granted anonymity to testify in two ongoing congressional investigations examining Russian meddling and perhaps also a wide-ranging FBI probe, Capitol Hill and executive branch officials would have to come to agreement on the scope of Flynn’s cooperation and what information he can provide. But the ongoing partisan divides on the House intelligence panel make that a tough slog.

“There is still much work and many more witnesses and documents to obtain before any immunity request from any witness can be considered,” Rep. Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee’s ranking Democrat, said in a statement.

“We should first acknowledge what a grave and momentous step it is for a former National Security Advisor to the President of the United States to ask for immunity from prosecution.”

Career national security professionals, for their part, fear for the credibility of the National Security Council in light of the revelations that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence at the NSC, and Michael Ellis, a former Nunes aide working for the White House Counsel’s Office, fed Nunes information in an apparent bid to sidetrack the ongoing investigation.

While the NSC is meant to be a neutral coordinator of the policy-making process, career staffers fear that their work will now be tainted by the politically-motivated actions of Cohen-Watnick and Ellis, one source said, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe his conversations with NSC staffers. Trump and White House strategist Steve Bannon reportedly personally intervened to keep the poorly-regarded Cohen-Watnick on the NSC, after National Security Adviser H. R. McMaster sought to replace him earlier this month.

The White House attempted to put the issue to rest Friday by inviting the heads of the House Intelligence Committee to view the intelligence reports supplied to Nunes, which he used to claim that American intelligence agencies had inappropriately collected information on Trump staffers.

Schiff said he would travel to the White House to review the documents later Friday, but cautioned that serious questions remain about the degree to which the White House allowed political concerns to dictate the distribution of intelligence reports.

“In the absence of the appropriate agency representatives it will not be possible to understand the full content and context of any documents we may review,” Schiff said in a statement.

“If these documents are the same as those shared with our Chairman over a week ago, the White House must fully disclose what role it appears to have played in concealing that the White House was the very source of documents presented to the White House.”

FP’s Noah Buyon contributed to this article.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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