Flynn Scandal Spotlight Falls on What Trump Knew and When He Knew It
Democratic lawmakers demand investigation into former national security advisor's talks with Russia
While President Donald Trump on Tuesday claimed the "real story" in the case of Gen. Michael Flynn's midnight resignation is why "there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington," many journalists, lawmakers, and concerned U.S. citizens are asking a different question: What did President Trump know and when did he know it?
Capturing the crux of the confusion, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway early Tuesday failed to articulate an adequate response when questioned over why the president kept Flynn on as national security adviser weeks after it was internally revealed that he had misled top officials about his communications with the Russian ambassador.
"The fact is that Gen. Flynn continued in that position and was in the presidential general briefings as part of the leader's call as recently as yesterday," Conway told "Today Show" host Matt Lauer. "But as time wore on, obviously the situation had become unsustainable [for the president]."
Lauer responded: "Kellyanne, that makes no sense. Last month the Justice Department warned the White House that Gen. Flynn had misled them and as a result he was vulnerable to blackmail, and at that moment he had the complete trust of the president?"
Seizing on this ambiguity, Democratic lawmakers are doubling down on their calls for an investigation.
Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) wrote on Twitter that Conway's "non-answer" only supports his call for floor debate on Trump's potentially impeachable conflicts of interest, which he noted, includes probing ties between Trump, Flynn, and the Kremlin.
— (((Rep. Nadler))) (@RepJerryNadler) February 14, 2017
Meanwhile, members from both parties on the Senate Intelligence Committee said Tuesday that they intend to question Flynn over "What did he know? What did he do? And is there any reason to believe that anybody knew that and didn't take the kind of action they should have taken?" as committee member Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking minority member on the committee, echoed that concern, released a statement Tuesday saying that it is clear that the investigation into potential Russian interference "is more urgent than ever."
"Reports that the White House may have been briefed weeks ago on the nature of Gen. Flynn's calls raise deeply troubling questions," Warner said. "The American people deserve to know at whose direction Gen. Flynn was acting when he made these calls, and why the White House waited until these reports were public to take action."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued a joint statement Tuesday declaring that Congress "need[s] to know who authorized his actions, permitted them, and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks."
Taking to social media on Tuesday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also chimed in:
This. Is. Not. Normal. @realDonaldTrump owes Americans a full account of his Admin’s dealings with Russia, both before & after the election.
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 14, 2017
When did @WhiteHouse know that Flynn lied? What other contacts with Russia occurred during the campaign? Who knew what? Who approved what?
— Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) February 14, 2017
And on Monday, after the Washington Post broke the news that the White House had known about Flynn's deception, Democratic members of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, frustrated over chairman Jason Chaffetz's (R-Utah) refusal heretofore to join an investigation into Flynn's security clearance information, sent a letter to the Republican leader blasting him for ignoring their requests.
"[A]ll Democratic Members of the Committee write to you jointly to request that you either reconsider your decision and initiate this investigation, or step aside and allow the Committee to vote on conducting basic oversight going forward," they wrote.
For his part, Chaffetz on Tuesday announced that he will not join the investigation, deferring to the Senate Intelligence Committee probe.
Chaffetz and other Republicans have repeatedly sidestepped efforts to dig into Flynn's ties to Russia, despite the seemingly ceaseless torrent of allegations connecting the Trump administration to the Russian government.
"Rarely does a day go by without at least one new and shocking revelation about this Administration's possible ties to the Russian government," said Ilya Sheyman, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, in a press statement. "These ties have already cost two of Trump's top aides, Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort, their jobs," he noted.
"It is time that everyone acknowledge that the problem is not Trump's staff; it is Trump," Sherman continued. "Trump is at the center of the questions about ties to Russia and corruption that have dogged this administration."
Amid this flurry of activity, Trump's focus on the intelligence officials who leaked the damaging information to the Washington Post came off as another attempt to distract from the issue at hand while, at the same time, inadvertently reminding the public that "leaks work," as Trevor Timm, founder of the Freedom of the Press foundation, wrote Tuesday.
"Speaking to the press about confidential and classified material is a risky and often courageous move," Timm wrote at the Columbia Journalism Review.
"Many people, especially those close to the Obama administration, were highly critical of whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden in the past," he continued. "But it's now more clear than ever that we will need more people like them in the next few years if we really want to hold the Trump administration accountable."