It wasn’t the scandal but the cover-up that led to the resignation of Michael Flynn as the national security advisor for President Trump.
Flynn seems to have engaged in a bit of premature diplomacy, talking shop with the Russian ambassador while then-President Obama was still in office. That’s illegal, but it’s generally considered a venial sin and the law has never been enforced.
Rather than admit his mistake, however, Flynn chose denial. And the Trump administration rushed to his defense, insisting that Flynn’s call was innocuous, just a chance to share holiday wishes with a Russian counterpart.
That may sound like the end, but this scandal could easily widen. Because it’s about something more the just Flynn’s phone call; it’s the latest reminder of the unusually cozy relationship between the Trump administration and Russia.
On the very same day, Dec. 29, that the Obama administration introduced new sanctions against the Russian government — for its interference in the US presidential election — Flynn chose to chat with the Russian ambassador.
From the beginning, Flynn insisted that there was absolutely no discussion of the sanctions, and the White House echoed that view. Vice President Mike Pence was unequivocal: “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
But in recent weeks, the real details have started coming out. Reporters from the Washington Post found no fewer than nine well-informed sources who claimed that Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
More than that, it turned out the FBI had a transcript of the conversation, and that the acting attorney general had earlier informed the White House that Flynn was likely lying.
Ultimately, the pressure proved too great. On Monday evening, Flynn resigned, admitting in his resignation letter that he may have “inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.”
The deeper issue is still Russia
Some scandals flicker out, while others refuse to die. And often it’s not the severity of the scandal that matters, it’s the underlying pattern — the way this one shocking event fits into a broader set of concerns.
Take Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal. Email management isn’t usually a major concern for voters, but Clinton’s decision to use a home server reinforced pre-existing concerns about her transparency and privilege.
In Flynn’s case, the bigger issue is Russia. At some level, Flynn’s resignation isn’t about a phone call. It’s about the Trump administration’s surprisingly dovish stance towards Russia, and the fact that we still have little idea what’s behind it.
Charges of Russophilia have dogged Trump throughout his campaign, and not without cause. Trump has consistently found ways to praise Russia and sidestep criticism of Vladimir Putin’s regime. He’s called Putin himself a strong leader, waved away questions about Putin’s use of violence, selected staff with strong Russian ties, and raised doubts about Russia’s efforts to swing the 2016 election — even after US intelligence agencies determined that this was precisely Russia’s goal.
Flynn was among Trump’s most Russia-friendly staffers, but his departure can’t fully erase questions about Trump-Putin ties — not when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also has a friendly history with Russia, and not when Trump continues to withhold his tax returns, drawing a veil over his own potential business ties to Russian oligarchs.
If there is another shoe waiting to drop, it may be in the hands of the FBI, which is continuing to investigate both Flynn’s contact with Russia and Russia’s influence more broadly.
Add to that the question of what Flynn might say now that he’s on the outside, and you have a recipe for ongoing scandal. Including the possibility that other, hidden links between Russia and the Trump administration are rising towards the surface.
Evan Horowitz digs through data to find information that illuminates the policy issues facing Massachusetts and the U.S. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeHorowitz