By Stump Connolly

So let’s state the obvious: Gen. Michael Flynn called the Russian embassy to discuss lifting the sanctions President Obama imposed for meddling in the U.S. elections because then President-elect Trump asked him to.

Trump may not have been sitting over Flynn’s shoulder when he made the call, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that Flynn didn’t go rogue on Donald Trump. He was his national security adviser carrying out Trump’s desire for a détente with Russia the only way he knew how, with stealth and cunning.

As a candidate, Trump had made better relations with Russia a centerpiece of his campaign, and he continued to pump for détente during the transition.

On December 13, he tweeted, “The thing I like best about Rex Tillerson is that he has vast experience at dealing successfully with all types of foreign governments.”

On December 15, he tweeted, “If Russia, or some other entity, was hacking, why did the White House wait so long to act? Why did they only complain after Hillary lost?” And again on December 23, “Vladimir Putin said today about Hillary and Dems: ‘In my opinion, it is humiliating. One must be able to lose with dignity.’ So true!”

Trump’s Secret Weapon

With all the challenges of a presidential transition facing him, the president-elect seemed obsessed with looking back at his electoral triumph. But he knew he had Gen. Flynn at his side, working the phones to set up a national security apparatus that looked forward to the moment when he would take the world stage.

Even though President Obama had warned him that Flynn was a loose cannon, Trump knew Flynn had many back-channel connections, in Russia and elsewhere. His appearance next to Vladimir Putin at a Russian RT banquet in 2015 was no secret. (And we know now he was talking with the Russians even before the election.)

So it was no surprise when, on December 19, Flynn called the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak to express his condolences for the terrorist assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey. Nor was it a surprise on Christmas Eve, when he exchanged Christmas greetings with Kislyak via text.

But these seemingly innocent contacts took an ominous turn on December 29 when President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled 35 Russian diplomats for Russia’s hacking of the U.S. elections. This time, Flynn called Kislyak at the embassy, and U.S. intelligence agents were listening in. It is a long-standing tradition that foreign policy in America is set one president at a time. Incoming presidents are expected not to step on the actions of outgoing ones, but Trump has never been known for observing niceties.

Great Move Vlad!

What exactly happened in Trump Tower that day is shrouded in mystery (and classified). But the fallout has brought on a crisis in Washington that proves, once again, the cover-up is worse than the crime.

What we know for sure is that President Putin the next day surprised the world by announcing Russia would not respond in kind to the United States sanctions. “Although we have the right to retaliate,” Putin said, “we will not resort to irresponsible ‘kitchen’ diplomacy but will plan our further steps to restore Russian-US relations based on the policies of the Trump Administration.”

Soon enough, Trump was posting on Twitter, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”

The Investigation That Wouldn’t Go Away

Over the next 10 days, Trump Tower was a beehive of activity. Between interviewing potential cabinet members, greeting celebrities and planning his first 100 days, President Trump sat down on Friday, January 6 for a briefing on the Russian hack from U.S. intelligence agencies.

He was impatient to get it over with, and skeptical that he would learn much. He tweeted, “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”

But there was more substance in the briefing than he imagined, and something he didn’t foresee: a dossier from a British intelligence agent that alleged various contacts between Trump associates and Russian operatives and salacious charges, not substantiated, that Trump had been videotaped in a hotel room with Russian prostitutes on a visit to Moscow.

After the briefing, Trump unleashed a Saturday morning tweet storm pooh-poohing the notion his campaign was working in cahoots with the Russians. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it is bad!” he wrote in one. “We have enough problems around the world without yet another one. When I am President, Russia will respect us far more than they do now,” he added in a second. “And both countries will, perhaps, work together to solve some of the many great and pressing problems and issues of the WORLD!” went a third.

An Asset Not a Liability

Three days later, Buzzfeed published the entire dossier, and Trump’s Twitter account exploded again.

Tweet 1: FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!

Tweet 2: Russia just said the unverified report paid for by political opponents is “A COMPLETE AND TOTAL FABRICATION, UTTER NONSENSE.” Very unfair!

Tweet 3: Russia has never tried to use leverage over me. I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA – NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!

Tweet 4: Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?

The Buzzfeed document dump came on the same day Trump was holding his first post-election press conference in Manhattan. Its purpose was to explain how the president-elect intended to distance himself from his vast business interests, but the topic quickly wheeled around to the  election hack.

Reluctantly, Trump conceded, “as far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.” Then he continued. “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks, that’s considered an asset not a liability. Now I don’t know that I’m going to get along with Premier Putin. I hope I do. But if I don’t, do you honestly believe that Hillary [Clinton] will be tougher on Putin than me?”

The Unraveling

The next day, David Ignatius reported for the first time in The Washington Post that Gen. Flynn not only called Kislyak to discuss the sanctions on the day Obama announced them, but they spoke several times.

“After this past week of salacious leaks about foreign espionage plots and indignant denials, people must be wondering if something is rotten in the state of our democracy,” Ignatius wrote. “How can we dispel the dark rumors that, as Hamlet says, “shake our disposition”?

One person who moved immediately to dispel the dark rumors was Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), who announced his Senate Intelligence committee would “expeditiously” conduct an investigation into Russian hacking as well as “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.”

The next day, Press Secretary Sean Spicer began the White House push back. The only phone call Flynn made on December 29, he said,  was “centered on the logistics” of a post-inauguration congratulatory call between Trump and Putin. “That was it, plain and simple.””

On the Sunday talk shows, Vice President Pence told Fox News that Flynn had assured him “the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to the new U.S. sanctions against Russia or the expulsion of diplomats.” And White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Meet the Press the subject of sanctions never came up in his conversations with Flynn.

Silence at the Core

Notably silent in the denials was Trump himself. How could he not know what Flynn was talking about with Kislyak when he was simultaneously tweeting about it himself. “Great move on the delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”

As events have unfolded over the last two months, it has become clear Flynn wasn’t the only Trump associate talking with the Russians. His attorney general Jeff Sessions talked to Kislyak at the Republican convention. Former campaign manager Paul Manafort, foreign policy adviser Carter Page, long time confidant Roger Stone, and Trump attorney Michael Cohen were also in conversations with Russian operatives. And his sons, Donald Jr. and Eric, were in and out of Russia frequently doing business deals.

On Twitter, the President vociferously insists he has no loans or deals in Russia CURRENTLY. But it’s fair to say his confidence in his ability to deal with Vladimir Putin stems from his past experience working with Russian partners.

A Riddle, Wrapped in a Mystery, Inside an Enigma

To do business in Russia, you have to think like a Russian, approaching every problem like you are peeling away the skin of an onion. . You have to recognize there is a web of connections between business and government. Someone you meet in one capacity, a tour guide, for instance, might be helpful in another. He might have an uncle who works for a company owned by an oligarch who was in the KGB with a state official who oversees Moscow land development. (Or he might just be a Russian agent.) A business deal doesn’t come together in Russia without a string of hangers-on attached, and always somehow runs through a government channel. [For an illustration of how this works, please see The New Yorker article by Adam Davidson on a Trump hotel deal in Azerbaijan.]

As Winston Churchill famously observed, Russia is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. Less famous, but equally important, was his addendum: “The key is Russian national interest.”

Leaving the President out of the equation for the moment, the Trump Organization is rife with Russia-related deals: golf courses that Eric Trump says were financed by Russian banks, scores of luxury apartments purchased by Russian oligarchs (often to launder money), hotels, resorts and other business partnerships where Trump has sold his name to a consortium of foreign investors.

In the enigma that is Trump, the only national interest is Trump’s interest. Although elected to represent the American interest, his first instinct is to insert  himself into every deal. But first, potential partners must pass through a close circle of friends and family. As his national security adviser, Flynn was as close as you can get to Trump without being family. He was empowered to make promises on behalf of the President, but if something went wrong, Trump would have a shield of deniability — even if it was only a bald-faced lie on Twitter.

“What Report Was That?”

On February 9, The Washington Post published another front page reaffirming that Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador. Nine intelligence sources confirmed the discussion. Two of them said Flynn explicitly urged Kislyak not to overreact because the matter could be revisited after Trump was sworn in.

On his way to a weekend in Mar a Logo, Trump played dumb when asked about the story by reporters on Air Force One. “What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that,” he said. But he had indeed been told details of Flynn’s conversation, Deputy Atty. General Sally Yates testified last week, in two January 26 and 27 meetings she had with the White House general counsel.

Four days after The Post story, Flynn was asked to resign. The reason offered by Sean Spicer was that he lied to the Vice President. Even after his departure, however, Trump insisted that Flynn was an honorable man who did nothing wrong. “He was doing his job. He was calling countries. I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him if he didn’t do it,” he explained in a press conference.

Blackmail or Loyalty

There has been much consternation in the press over the 18-day gap between when Yates reported Flynn’s misconduct to the White House and his firing. No sooner was she out the door  – dramatically fired over her refusal to implement the Muslim ban – than Flynn was sitting in on an hour-long phone conversation between Trump and President Putin. Without The Post revelations, it appeared as if Trump planned to soldier on with Flynn doing business as usual.

Yates had told Congress in the most somber of tones “the underlying conduct of Gen. Flynn was problematic in itself” and lies about the nature of his call to the Russian embassy meant he could “essentially be blackmailed by the Russians.”

But the President called her testimony “old hat” just as he dismissed the FBI investigation as “a ruse”. How could Flynn blackmail the President for doing what the President asked him to do?

Flynn’s offense, remember, wasn’t lying to the President. It was lying to the Vice President who, believe it or not, was shocked to find out there was gambling in Casablanca.


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