Trump Asked for Flynn’s Resignation After ‘Eroding’ Trust, Aide SaysBy , , and
Retired Army General Kellogg named acting security adviser
Foreign Relations chairman calls for ‘fulsome investigation’
President Donald Trump asked his national security adviser to resign after White House lawyers reviewed a warning from the Justice Department that Michael Flynn had misled officials about his conversations with a Russian envoy and could be vulnerable to blackmail.
The White House counsel, Don McGahn, "determined that there was not a legal issue but a trust issue," Trump’s press secretary, Sean Spicer, told reporters on Tuesday. Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s U.S. ambassador and the possibility that he misled Vice President Mike Pence "and others" about those discussions "created a critical mass and an unsustainable situation," Spicer said.
"That’s why the president asked for his resignation and he got it," Spicer said. He said the situation had caused an "evolving and eroding level of trust."
Less than a month into his presidency, Trump’s national security team is in disarray. An all-hands meeting was called for the National Security Council staff Tuesday morning, where the agency’s acting director, retired Army Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, and two deputies K.T. McFarland and Thomas Bossert, all spoke, according to people familiar with the matter.
The meeting lasted about 20 minutes and the agency’s leaders said that their priority was to pull together and support the president, one of the people said. Trump did not attend, nor did his chief of staff, Reince Priebus, or his chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.
Trump’s aides are vetting as many as three other former high-ranking military officers in addition to Kellogg as potential successors to Flynn, according to people familiar with the process. They are retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, former CIA director David Petraeus, and Robert Kimmitt, a West Point graduate who rose to the rank of major general in the Army Reserve.
"The president is currently evaluating a group of very strong candidates that will be considered to fill the national security adviser position permanently," Spicer said, without naming any of them.
None of the candidates has a history with the president like Flynn’s, who was an early supporter and ardent campaigner during Trump’s improbable campaign for the White House.
Flynn’s departure comes as Trump, Pence and other senior officials prepare for a series of meetings and summits with foreign leaders in the coming months, starting this week in Europe.
Flynn said in his resignation letter that he had “inadvertently” misinformed Pence as well as Trump about discussing sanctions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, before the inauguration. Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters Tuesday that was the key fact that precipitated his departure.
“I think misleading the vice president really was the key here,” Conway said in an interview with NBC News. Flynn decided “that the situation had become unsustainable for him here and, of course, the president accepted that resignation.”
Amid the disruption, the U.S. is confronting serious challenges on two strategic fronts: the Middle East and Asia. Trump has yet to articulate a plan for combating Islamic State and other radical Islamists that he’s said are the No. 1 threat to the U.S. In Asia, North Korea has tested the new administration by launching a ballistic missile while Trump was meeting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, the main U.S. ally in the region. China also is asserting itself, forcing Trump to back down from the notion of using Taiwan as a bargaining chip in dealing with the world’s second biggest economy.
The circumstances of Flynn’s departure have attracted the attention of lawmakers.
Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker told reporters Tuesday that there should be an exhaustive probe into Russia’s hacking of the 2016 elections and Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador, and that it must go beyond what the Senate Intelligence Committee is currently planning. But he stopped short of calling for the type of independent commission that Democrats have been demanding.
“I think there needs to be fulsome investigation on all angles relative to nefarious activities that were taking place with Russia, beginning in March but even going back before that time,” Corker said. “An element of that should be that maybe General Flynn testifies in one of the hearings.”
Senate Armed Service Chairman John McCain, an Arizona Republican, added in a statement, “General Flynn’s resignation also raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions toward Vladimir Putin’s Russia, including statements by the president suggesting moral equivalence between the United States and Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, threats to our NATO allies, and attempted interference in American elections."
Several Democrats, including the senior members of the House and Senate Intelligence committees, said Congress should investigate what Trump knew about Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador prior to his resignation.
“The American people deserve to know at whose direction General Flynn was acting when he made these calls, and why the White House waited until these reports were public to take action,” Senator Mark Warner, a Virginia Democrat who is vice chairman of his chamber’s Intelligence committee, said in a statement.
If Trump selects Harward to replace Flynn, Mattis may be further empowered. Harward served under the Pentagon chief as a deputy commander of U.S. Central Command. He also worked on the National Security Council’s staff and at the National Counterterrorism Center under President George W. Bush. He has served as a Navy SEAL and commanded forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Harward currently is chief executive of Lockheed Martin United Arab Emirates.
Petraeus is well known as a retired four-star general lauded for his leadership in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. But his ability to repair the reputation of Trump’s National Security Council may be compromised by another matter that brought him notoriety: a 2015 plea deal including two years of probation for a misdemeanor, after he shared classified documents with a biographer with whom he had an extramarital affair. The episode forced his resignation as CIA director under Obama. He was under consideration by Trump for the secretary of state job that ultimately went to Rex Tillerson.
Kimmitt, who is senior international counsel at WilmerHale in Washington, served in a variety of posts in the administrations of Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, including undersecretary of state for political affairs, ambassador to Germany and deputy Treasury secretary. He declined to comment.
An administration official said the White House has been reviewing Flynn’s actions for several weeks in light of a Justice Department warning about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
The Kremlin said Kislyak and Flynn never discussed lifting U.S. sanctions in their conversations.
“This is an internal matter for Trump’s administration. This is not our issue,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday.
The Justice Department informed the White House last month that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian envoy and misled officials about the conversation, according to a U.S. law enforcement official with knowledge of the matter. Pence appeared on CBS’s "Face the Nation" on Jan. 15 and asserted that Flynn hadn’t discussed sanctions in his calls with the ambassador.
A White House official said last week that Pence based his remarks on what Flynn had told him.
The Justice Department’s warning about Flynn was delivered to the White House counsel’s office by then acting Attorney General Sally Yates, a career prosecutor who was held over from the Obama administration, said the official who requested anonymity to speak about the sensitive matter.
Spicer said McGahn received the warning on Jan. 26, and questioned why the department waited 11 days after Pence’s television interview to deliver its findings. "Where was the Department of Justice?" he told reporters on Tuesday.
Yates was fired on Jan. 30 after she said she would not mount a legal defense of Trump’s travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim nations.
The Washington Post reported earlier the warning and that Yates was concerned Flynn was potentially vulnerable to being blackmailed by Russia, an account that the official confirmed.
White House officials sent conflicting signals about how much the revelation had damaged Flynn. On Sunday, Trump senior policy adviser Stephen Miller declined to defend Flynn or say whether his job was safe. Miller, appearing on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” said Flynn had served the country admirably, but that “It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind.”
As late as 4 p.m. on Monday, Conway said in a television interview that Flynn “does enjoy the full confidence of the president.”
Just over an hour later, Spicer released a contradictory statement. Trump “is speaking to Vice President Pence relative to the conversation the vice president had with General Flynn and also speaking to various other people about what he considers the single most important subject there is, our national security.”
— With assistance by Ilya Arkhipov, Laura Litvan, Keri Geiger, Anna Edgerton, Toluse Olorunnipa, Chris Strohm, Jason Scott, and Steven T. Dennis