“This reminds me of the run-up to Iran- Contra.”
The person offering that gloomy observation was a veteran of many years in and around the US defense community. Unusually for a person with such a background, he had been a Trump supporter even during the Republican primaries. Now, though, he was worried. The new National Security Council leadership was taking form—and he feared he saw history repeating itself.
“The National Security Council,” he warned, “is not one executive body. It is a deliberative body.” But the new national security adviser, General Michael Flynn, obviously hungered to carry out policy, not merely preside over policy formation. That way lay the disaster that had befallen Reagan’s national security advisers Bud Macfarlane and John Poindexter in the 1980s, who were convicted of lying to Congress about the administration selling arms to Iran to finance anti-communist militants in Nicaragua.
Disaster now seems to have happened. The Washington Post last night reported that—contrary to previous denials not only by Flynn himself, but from Vice President Mike Pence—Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office.”
That matters because “Flynn’s communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.”
According to the Post, 9 current and former U.S. officials confirmed that Flynn had not told the truth about his diplomatic outreach to the country whose spies had helped to elect his boss to the US presidency. If these reports are true, we have here a very serious scandal.
And one of that scandal’s proximate causes, as my friend observed, is a national security adviser who sees his role as that of foreign policy operative. This vision of the role sort of worked when the deft and cunning Henry Kissinger headed an NSC staff of 40. Since then the NSC has grown into a quasi-agency in its own right, some 400 people in the White House or seconded from other departments. And Michael Flynn is no Henry Kissinger.
Flynn’s maladroitness in fact is the one thing that may have saved the administration from an even worse scandal: His reported lie was exposed so quickly that the uproar will thwart any project to lift early the sanctions on Russia for its role in the 2016 election. He has given the Trump administration an opportunity to localize what is really a much larger scandal.
They can now try to load all the blame for all the various sinister connections between the Trump campaign and Russian spy agencies onto one man, in an effort to protect everybody else implicated in the scandal, including the president himself.