Michael Flynn's downfall: The Russia House

Kremlingate seems new, but historic US intercepts reveal previous Russian agents in the White House

February 16, 2017
Michael Flynn ©Douliery Olivier/ABACA USA/ABACA/PA Images
Michael Flynn ©Douliery Olivier/ABACA USA/ABACA/PA Images

This week saw the first victim fall in the scandal engulfing Donald Trump’s White House over its connections with Russia. On Monday, President Trump’s embattled National Security Adviser, General Michael Flynn, resigned after just 24 days in office, making him the shortest serving National Security Adviser in US history. Flynn’s resignation raises more questions than it answers, and is likely to be the beginning, not the end, of this scandal—already being termed “Kremlingate” in Washington.

Behind Flynn’s resignation lie much broader, and more significant, questions about Russia’s connections with the Trump White House: did Russia do more than “interfere” in the US presidential election in favour of Trump, as US intelligence previously assessed, and actually collude with his election campaign? Do Russia’s intelligence services hold compromising material on the President of the United States? In other times, such questions would seem like the plot of a far-fetched novel, but they are now legitimate questions to ask.

Flynn stepped down when it emerged from leaked US intelligence intercepts that he had misled senior White House staff about whether he had discussed sanctions against Moscow on a phone call with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak. This happened in December last year, before Trump entered the White House. On 29th December, in response to US intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the US presidential election, President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia and expelled 35 Russian suspected intelligence officials from the US. That same day, Flynn called the Russian ambassador—it is now reported that he actually had five calls that day with Kislyak. Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador was first reported by TheWashington Post on 12th January. When questioned about its nature, senior White House Staff—including Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer, and then Vice President-Elect, Mike Pence—stated that Flynn had not discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. It has now emerged this was false. In late January, the acting Attorney General, Sally Yates—later fired by President Trump for her doubts over the legality of his immigration ban executive order—reportedly informed the White House that transcripts of intercepted calls to the Russian ambassador, picked up through routine US monitoring, showed that Flynn had lied about the nature of his calls with Kislyak and was therefore vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

Trump therefore seems to have known that Flynn misled the White House over the nature of his calls with the Russian ambassador for about two weeks—reportedly just six days into his presidency—but did not take any action. Vice President Pence was also apparently kept in the dark. The story of the Justice Department’s blackmail warning to the White House was leaked to The Washington Post, which published it on Monday this week. Within hours, Flynn had resigned. As always with leaks of classified government information, it is impossible to know about the motivations of those doing the leaking. However, it should be pointed out that the leaks about Flynn are coming from multiple official sources on the condition of anonymity.

It is difficult to square the above reported sequence of events—that for about two weeks Trump knew about the nature of Flynn’s pre-inauguration conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US—with Trump’s statement on Friday last week, on board Air Force One, as he was flying to Florida, denying he had any knowledge about it. “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it,” he said to reporters on board, though he also promised that he would “look into” those reports. By Monday, Flynn’s position was untenable.

It is notable that, on his own account, Flynn did not resign because of his conversations with the Russian ambassador—reportedly five phone calls on the day the US imposed new sanctions on Russia—but instead because, as his resignation letter states, he had “inadvertently” misled senior White House officials about those calls.

It has not been publicly revealed what Flynn and Kislyak actually discussed during their calls. There are obvious questions about whether Flynn was acting on his own, or perhaps on instructions of someone else on President-Elect Trump's team, and also whether their conversations could explain why Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, surprisingly did not retaliate to Obama’s expulsions of Russian officials with similar expulsions of US officials from Russia, in a tit-for-tat move, as most commentators expected, in the manner of the Cold War. At the time, Trump tweeted that Putin was “v smart” for not doing so.

Since Flynn’s resignation, Trump’s reaction has been predictably bizarre. The President took to his usual communication outlet, Twitter, hammering out a series of 140 character messages on the subject. On Tuesday, he tweeted that the “real story” was why there were so many leaks coming out of Washington. The next day, the President unleashed a series of early morning Tweets, stating that “fake news media” was going “going crazy with their conspiracy theories,” adding that the “Russia connection” was “non-sense” and “merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.” An hour later, he lambasted the US intelligence community—“NSA and FBI?”, he asked—for illegally giving information to “failing” US newspapers. He finished his tirade by returning to an earlier theme: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American.” Unlike his previous statements comparing US intelligence to Nazis, Trump’s tweets are now comparing US intelligence to Russia.

Meanwhile, the Kremlin’s reaction to Flynn’s resignation was similarly predictable. RT America, owned by the Russian government, reported that Flynn “retired,” not resigned.

On Thursday this week, President Trump addressed Flynn’s resignation in a long, circuitous, press conference. The President described Flynn as “a great guy," who was “just doing his job” as incoming National Security Adviser talking with the Russian ambassador, but that he had misled the Vice President. Sounding like he did on The Apprentice, Trump said that for this, he had to fire Flynn. The President explained that he had not directed Flynn to discuss sanctions with the Russian ambassador before his inauguration, but in an extraordinary statement, added that he would have done if he thought Flynn was not going to do so—thus undermining a long-standing US political tradition of one President at a time, with an incoming President not interfering with the policies of the incumbent. It is now being reported that Flynn lied to the FBI— a federal crime—in an initial interview with them, when he denied that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. The FBI is apparently not pursuing charges against Flynn for this. Meanwhile, Trump’s initial pick to replace Flynn as National Security Adviser, Robert Harward, has turned down the offer. Trump finished the week by tweeting that mainstream print and television media are the “enemy” of the people—a similar phrase used by President Richard Nixon amid Watergate, and, it has been pointed out, the exact phrase used by several authoritarian regimes.

The story of Flynn’s resignation is now riddled with so many twists and turns that it will keep investigative reporters busy for the foreseeable future. However, by focusing on who knew what, when, it is easy to lose track of much bigger questions about Russia’s interference in Trump’s presidential campaign. Entirely separate to Flynn’s resignation, it is now reported that in the year before his election, Trump’s campaign aides and other associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials. It is striking that, at this point, Trump has been more publicly critical about America’s own intelligence services than he has of Russia. It is conceivable that Russia actively colluded with Trump’s presidential election campaign—though at present there is no evidence, at least in the public domain, that this occurred. Perhaps most explosively of all, it is now reported that US investigators have corroborated parts of a 35-page dossier on Trump, compiled by a former British intelligence (MI6) officer, Christopher Steele, which describes that Russian intelligence holds salacious compromising material (Kompromat) on the President. The so-called “dirty dossier” on Trump is gaining credibility. A senior Republican member of the senate intelligence committee, Roy Blunt, has called for “exhaustive” investigation into Trump’s connections with Russia. The House intelligence committee and the FBI are also apparently both also investigating. Serious political commentators, not prone to hyperbole, have posed the question whether Donald Trump is a modern-day Manchurian candidate.

So many questions, so few answers. To make matters worse, in the hectic 24-hour news cycle of events, it is easy to treat these dramas as singular events, misunderstanding and overlooking their long-term backgrounds. But these events cannot be understood stripped of their historical context. I have already written a piece in this magazine about Russia’s long history of meddling in US Presidential elections through KGB “active measures.”

In fact, this is not the first time that US intercepts have revealed the Kremlin’s interference at the heart of the White House. In the early years of the Cold War, US army signals intelligence (SIGINT) officials, working with their British counter-parts, decoded approximately 3,000 Soviet intelligence and other classified telegrams, later code-named the VENONA decrypts. VENONA revealed that during the Second World War, and on some occasions after it, over two hundred American citizens had worked as Soviet agents. Every section of the wartime administration of US President Franklin D Roosevelt had been penetrated by Soviet intelligence. Most alarmingly, we know from VENONA and corresponding Soviet intelligence sources that Roosevelt’s vice-president during his third term in office (1941 to 1945), Henry Wallace, had unknowingly selected two Soviet agents to be his Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury, Larry Duggan and Harry Dexter White respectively (given Soviet codenames FRANK and JURIST). If the ailing Roosevelt had died in 1944, as seemed possible, Henry Wallace would have become President, with Soviet agents as his selected Secretaries of States and Treasury.

It does not stop there. In a reversal of today’s revelations about US interception of Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador, the Kremlin is known in the past to have intercepted the communications of at least one US National Security Adviser. In 1974, the KGB was able to intercept telephone conversations between Henry Kissinger, then US National Security Adviser, with Britain’s foreign secretary (and future Prime Minister), James Callaghan. A former high-ranking KGB general, Oleg Kalugin, who for a long time led KGB operations in the United States, has described how in the late 1960s, the KGB placed antennas on the roof of the Russian embassy in Washington by which they were able to intercept communications between the Pentagon, State Department, FBI, and White House, broadcast in open, non-secure channels. One conversation the KGB intercepted was between Kissinger and his finance, Nancy Maginnes, before their marriage in 1974. This intercept found warm reception in Moscow. The KGB’s chairman, Yuri Andropov, used to like saying that the KGB was able to eavesdrop on the intimate conversations of the US National Security Adviser.

Whether Trump likes to admit or not, we are now back in the territory of the Cold War. The White House would do well to study closely the history of that conflict— not least because the Russian government does so. As a former KGB officer, Putin lived the Cold War. His intelligence services today, the FSB and SVR, are known to look on the KGB’s history with pride. Just a day after Flynn’s resignation, Russia reportedly tested a missile in violation of landmark Cold War arms limitation treaty with the US. Russia seems to be testing Trump. Then, in an episode straight out of Cold War history, in which both sides, western governments and the Soviet Union, would repeatedly test each other, a Russian spy ship equipped with high-tech intercept facilities was spotted 30 miles off America’s eastern seaboard. The questions is: what will comrade Trump do about it?