Opinion

Michael A. Cohen

On Flynn, what did the president know and when did he know it?

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn at a joint news conference held by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Feb. 13, 2017. Flynn faced an uncertain future on Monday as White House officials delivered conflicting messages about whether he still enjoys the confidence of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Stephen Crowley/New York Times

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn at a joint news conference held by President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada at the White House on Monday.

The cancer on Donald Trump’s presidency is spreading.

It took its first victim Monday night: former General Mike Flynn, who was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser. But Flynn’s departure raises more questions than it answers, and we are now in the midst of a full-fledged presidential scandal.

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Indeed, what is most striking about Flynn’s resignation is the why — or actually, to be more accurate, the why not.

From all appearances, Flynn was not forced to resign because he talked to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, about the possibility of President Trump lifting sanctions imposed by President Obama about Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

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This is almost certainly a violation of the Logan Act, which prevents private citizens from conducting foreign diplomacy, and beyond that, a stunning defilement of basic democratic norms.

It also doesn’t appear that Flynn resigned because he publicly lied about his communications with Kislyak. Considering the historic levels of dishonesty emanating from the Trump White House, this is perhaps not surprising. But in non-bizarro America, a national security adviser who is caught publicly lying can’t keep his job.

Instead, what did Flynn in was the revelation last week that he’d lied to administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the calls — and then those officials repeated the lie. In short, Flynn’s greatest crime appears to be that he embarrassed his boss.

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This isn’t idle speculation on my part, because we now know that former acting Attorney General Sally Yates had warned the White House in January that Flynn had not been truthful about his conversations with Kislyak.

This was brought to the president’s attention because of concern that Flynn’s deception made him vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.

Think about what this means. The attorney general of the United States tells the president that the national security adviser, the president’s top foreign aide and a man with daily access to the most highly classified secrets of the US government, could be extorted by a foreign government hostile to the United States — and the White House did nothing. Indeed, more than a week after Yates’s warning, Flynn publicly lied again about the question of whether he talked about sanctions with Kislyak. Two days after that, Trump told reporters that he was unaware of the reports about Flynn, but he would “look into it.” Yet, the White House had known about Flynn’s deception for weeks. Unless the White House counsel had left Trump in the dark, the president was not telling the truth.

Considering Flynn’s vulnerability to blackmail, it’s simply unimaginable that he was allowed to keep his job and have access to highly classified material. Considering that the Trump campaign, including Flynn, made regular issue of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server is prima facie evidence that in Trump’s America, truly nothing matters.

All of this brings up a host of unanswered questions. Did Trump know about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak before being told by Yates? Did he instruct Flynn to call Kislyak? It’s hard to imagine that Flynn took this step on his own without any input from Trump or other top aides.

But there’s more. According to various press reports, Flynn was talking to Kislyak before the election. What did they discuss, and was Trump aware this was happening? If so, how does one square this with Trump’s earlier statement that no member of his campaign had been talking to the Russian government during the campaign?

And then there is the revelation on Friday that US intelligence agencies have corroborated some aspects of the salacious dossier leaked in January alleging coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the campaign. That dossier also contains allegations that Trump’s business dealings and his personal behavior makes him susceptible to blackmail by Moscow.

This should put even more pressure on Congress to create a select committee to investigate Trump’s Russia connections. Americans need to know: What did the president know and when did he know it?

Twenty-five days after his inauguration, the cancer on Trump’s presidency is growing. Mike Flynn’s resignation is just the tip of the iceberg.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.
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