The White House’s explanation for the resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was muddled at best — then President Donald Trump weighed in.
On Wednesday at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and in his first in-person remarks since Flynn’s resignation, Trump said his former adviser is “wonderful man” who had been “treated very very unfairly” by the press.
Flynn resigned late Monday amid scandal over a call with the Russian ambassador, which he made the same day President Barack Obama’s administration placed new sanctions on Moscow for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
The scandal developed in a series of leaks. A Washington Post report revealed Flynn had lied to top White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the extent of his conversations with the Russian envoy — and that he had discussed sanctions. On Monday, the Washington Post again reported that the Justice Department had informed the White House of the dangers of Flynn’s ties with Russia in January.
Tuesday afternoon, White House press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed that President Donald Trump had known Flynn had lied for “weeks” and “instinctively” knew there was nothing illegal about Flynn’s actions. Nevertheless, Spicer said, Trump had lost enough trust in Flynn that he asked him to resign late Monday — and Flynn obliged.
Not everyone in the Trump administration, including Trump himself, has gotten this story straight. On Wednesday, Trump made it out like it was out of his hands. He said it was “sad” what happened to Flynn and blamed the media.
Just last week, Trump told reporters he had not heard of any Washington Post report on Flynn. The day of Flynn’s resignation, White House adviser Kellyanne Conway said Flynn had the full trust of the president. Early Tuesday, she said Flynn offered his resignation.
These contradictions likely stem from a desire to protect Trump from any questions of judgment and wrongdoing. So now the public has to parse through a confusing non-explanation of why one of the most powerful people in Trump’s administration was fired (or decided to resign) four weeks into the presidency. We’ve tried to break it down for you:
What Spicer said happened
Spicer’s story starts weeks before inauguration. He told the press Tuesday that he found out about Flynn’s call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on January 13 and informed Pence of it then.
At the time, Spicer told the press Flynn’s communication with Kislyak was merely to wish him a merry Christmas and talk logistics for a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump. There was no talk of sanctions, Spicer and Pence were told.
But that wasn’t the case. The week following Trump’s inauguration, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates gave White House counsel Don McGahn a “heads up” that Flynn had misled them, and that a record of the call showed he had in fact talked sanctions.
Spicer said that warning prompted an extensive investigation. "We've been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth," Spicer said — noting extensive interrogations of Flynn himself.
Ultimately, McGahn concluded that there was no legal issue with Flynn’s call (there was concern that it could have been in violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits people outside the executive branch from making foreign policy on behalf of the US administration), but that it was rather a “trust issue.”
"The president was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others. The president must have complete and unwavering trust of the person in that position," Spicer said. So on Monday night, Trump made the final decision and asked Flynn to resign, Spicer said.
Makes sense. Except, when pushed further, the story weakened. Spicer made vague references to Flynn breaking trust on “several occasions” — but didn’t clarify what they were. And when asked why Flynn was allowed to be privy to confidential information while deemed untrustworthy, Spicer said that it wasn’t a lack of trust in his dedication and abilities, but rather an eroding trust in his recollection of his phone conversation with the Russian ambassador.
In short, the White House just wants to leave it with: They investigated, everything was aboveboard, and sometime on Monday — after weeks of investigation — Trump decided that Flynn should resign. That’s that.
The White House — including Trump — hasn’t stuck to a single story
But that isn’t just that. The White House has given reporters mixed messages on how this all went down.
Spicer said Trump’s trust in Flynn has been “eroding” over the past weeks, but Conway told MSNBC that Flynn had the “full confidence of the president" Monday afternoon. Hours later, Flynn resigned because of a “trust issue.”
Then on Wednesday, Trump called Flynn a “wonderful man,” and lamented over what happened to him. “I think he has been treated very very unfairly by the media,” Trump said. “And I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly from intelligence.”
Spicer specifically said Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation. Trust was “what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn,” Spicer said.
On that point, the Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman said they were told differently Monday night:
I was told last night by a Sr WH official that Flynn made his own decision to resign & Trump was "hanging in there" with Flynn to buy time.— Philip Rucker (@PhilipRucker) February 14, 2017
Spicer says Trump asked for Flynn resignation, contra what SAOs said last night— Maggie Haberman (@maggieNYT) February 14, 2017
More strikingly, Conway went on the Today show with Matt Lauer Tuesday morning and emphasized the exact opposite.
“The president is very loyal. He’s a very loyal person. And by nighttime, Mike Flynn had decided it was best to resign. He knew he became a lightning rod, and he made that decision,” Conway said. She added: “And I spoke with the president this morning. He asked me to speak on his behalf and to reiterate that Mike Flynn had resigned.”
Conway’s appearance on the Today show left Lauer totally perplexed: “Kellyanne, that makes no sense,” he said.
Here is a snippet of Conway’s conversation with Lauer:
LAUER: But wait a second. You’re saying that was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but the White House knew about that last month when the Justice Department warned the White House that Mr. Flynn — or Gen. Flynn — had not been completely honest in characterizing that conversation with the Russian ambassador. And they even went further to say that as a result of that dishonesty, he was at risk for blackmailing by the Russians.
CONWAY: Well, that’s one characterization, but the fact is that Gen. Flynn continued in that position, and was in the presidential daily briefings, was part of the leader calls, as recently as yesterday. He was there for the prime minister’s visit from Canada yesterday. And as time wore on, obviously the situation had become unsustainable [...]
Piecing together Conway’s Monday afternoon interview, Flynn’s 11 pm Monday resignation, and Spicer’s press conference, it seems Trump lost all trust in Flynn in the matter of an afternoon. But the explanation, according to Conway — and later Spicer — was about something Trump had known for weeks. Contradictions galore.
This is muddled simply because this looks bad — and Trump can’t look bad
As Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out, “right now we have the White House firing one of the most important members of its administration, and offering no coherent explanation of why.”
Spicer’s press conference, however, did give some clues as to why the explanation was so muddled: The White House can’t say Flynn was making the administration look bad. Instead, it has to protect the president from what was an otherwise increasingly scandalous story — which largely played out through leaks in the press.
A look at the major contradictions in the narrative shows the areas where the White House is trying to protect the commander in chief.
Spicer said Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation, and specifically repeated that Trump always makes the final decision. They are trying to build a clear narrative: Trump is in charge. Conway wanted to highlight the competence of Trump’s appointee — Flynn knew he had become a “lightning rod,” so he chose to step down. Best of both worlds: Trump is both a strong leader and one who surrounds himself with loyal people.
That’s likely why Spicer repeated that Trump “instinctively thought that Gen. Flynn did not do anything wrong” and was ultimately proved right by the White House counsel’s investigation into the legality of Flynn’s call.
“Instinctively.” It’s an apt choice of words for a president who has repeatedly claimed to have a prescient understanding of government and world affairs.