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The Trump Administration And Russia: Many Troubling Questions

Why would fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, asks Harvard Russia expert Mark Kramer, call the Russian ambassador on lines he knew would be monitored by U.S. intelligence? Pictured: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y, center, joined by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, right, calls for an investigation into President Donald Trump's administration over its relationship with Russia, including when Trump learned that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with a Russian diplomat, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2016, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
Why would fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, asks Harvard Russia expert Mark Kramer, call the Russian ambassador on lines he knew would be monitored by U.S. intelligence? Pictured: Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of N.Y, center, joined by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, left, and Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., vice chair of the Intelligence Committee, right, calls for an investigation into President Donald Trump's administration over its relationship with Russia, including when Trump learned that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with a Russian diplomat, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2016, during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP)
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COMMENTARY

President Trump’s dismissal of his embattled national security adviser, Michael Flynn, earlier this week, amid controversy about potentially illegal contacts between Flynn and the Russian ambassador in Washington in late December, leaves many questions unanswered.

Flynn spent 33 years of his life in U.S. military intelligence, including a stint as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Anyone who had served at the highest levels of U.S. intelligence would have been well aware that all of the Russian ambassador's communications are routinely monitored by at least two agencies — the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National Security Agency. The monitoring began in the early years of the Cold War to keep track of the Soviet ambassador’s communications, and it has continued over the past quarter of a century with the Russian ambassador.

So Flynn must have known that the FBI and NSA would quickly learn about the content of any calls to the Russian ambassador. Yet, he still repeatedly called on an unsecure line to the ambassador, which suggests he was acting in haste under pressure from someone else — and perhaps mistrusted the agencies that would have assisted him in using a secure line. Trump, at his news conference on Thursday, claimed that he did not know in advance about Flynn’s contacts with the ambassador. But he would have approved, he said, had he known.

Is Trump so lax in his management of his advisers that he wouldn't care if they have unauthorized contact on such a delicate matter?

This raises a host of questions. For example, is Trump so lax in his management of his advisers that he wouldn't care if they have unauthorized contact on such a delicate matter? We now know, by Flynn’s own admission, that he discussed with the ambassador the administration’s intention to lift sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. The details of the conversations have not yet been disclosed, but Flynn may well have been referring to the sanctions that President Obama had just announced in retaliation for Russia’s interference in the U.S. election campaign. If so, the conversations would have skirted the bounds of legality and could be a violation of the Logan Act. Does Trump really want to
express approval of potentially illegal activity?

We now know that Trump's lead counsel was informed on Jan. 26 by Sally Yates, then acting Attorney General, that Flynn was not being truthful about his calls, and that his dishonesty left him vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian authorities. We also know Trump's counsel quickly informed the president about this information. Yet, bizarrely, Trump kept Flynn on and repeatedly expressed full confidence in him, as recently as last weekend. Why, after being informed nearly a month ago that Flynn had lied, did Trump keep him in his highly sensitive national security post (a post in
which Flynn potentially could have learned the identities of U.S. intelligence sources in Russia) and continue to trust him?

Another question that needs to be answered: Why has Trump, over the past 15 months, repeatedly expressed warm feelings about Russian President Vladimir Putin while berating and belittling some of the closest U.S. allies? This was not always Trump’s position. In March 2014, Trump took a harsh line against Russia, calling for “much tougher sanctions” that would “do real damage” to the Russian economy. Back then, Trump repeatedly said that Mitt Romney had been right in 2012 to describe Putin’s Russia as the “No. 1 geopolitical foe” of the United States.

Why has Trump, over the past 15 months, repeatedly expressed warm feelings about Russian President Vladimir Putin while berating and belittling some of the closest U.S. allies?

By late 2015, however, Trump's position had transformed. He spoke about his admiration of Putin and emphasized Putin's great leadership. This shift may have been partly motivated by Putin's own characterization of Trump in November 2015 as “yarkii," which Trump — relying on an early mistranslation — has always construed as “brilliant,” instead of the word's actual meaning — “flamboyant” or colorful. Even so, it is hard to imagine the misunderstanding was enough to so drastically change Trump’s position.

The controversy over the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia escalated last month when BuzzFeed published a dossier of reports compiled by a former British intelligence official alleging that the Russian government had amassed damaging material about Trump and was planning to blackmail him if he won. Although the salacious aspects of the reports gained the most attention, the more credible allegations described the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians to influence the election.

Even those allegations, however, were unsubstantiated and initially seemed implausible because of the risks both parties (the Trump campaign and the Russians) would have been taking. What seemed far more plausible is that Putin was trying to meddle in the U.S. elections to stir public doubts about the legitimacy of the voting and to discredit this fundamental feature of American democracy. Putin was doing this in part because he, like everyone else, expected that Clinton was going to win. He wanted to portray her election as unfair and illegitimate; Trump was prepared to do the same.

But because Trump won in an upset, Putin inadvertently complicated things for himself a great deal. Now he (like Trump) wants to characterize the election as entirely legitimate, and must undo the plans he had made for a Clinton win.

It remains to be seen whether an investigative commission will be created. But if one is established, the commission will have many questions it needs to resolve.

Related:

Mark Kramer Cognoscenti contributor
Mark Kramer is director of Cold War Studies at Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

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