Lies, half-truths and the foggy statistics of trust in the Trump White House
Kevin Rafferty says the resignation of Michael Flynn amid yet another intelligence leak sparks deeper questions about the reality-TV-like running of Washington’s centre of power and its links to Russia
Is there an adult in the White House? Is there a single honest person in the swamp of Washington now presided over by President Donald J. Trump?
These questions are real and serious, and driven by the ongoing farrago of half-truths, evasions, obfuscations, storytelling, spin and outright lies surrounding the resignation of retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn as Trump’s national security adviser.
Flynn’s undoing, supposedly, was not to tell the whole truth to Vice-President Mike Pence, who went on CBS’ Face the Nation to assure the world that Flynn had not discussed sanctions in his telephone conversations with Sergey Kisylak, Russia’s ambassador in Washington.
Pence was furious about being lied to when he discovered that Flynn had misled him. Even so, it took weeks before Flynn resigned.
On the fateful resignation day, Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser close to Trump, claimed that Flynn had the full confidence of the president. An hour and six minutes later, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, said that Trump was “evaluating” Flynn’s position.
Spicer was right, and Flynn quit – admitting only that he had “inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.” At a press briefing, Spicer said Trump asked Flynn to resign because of an erosion of trust – not because any laws were broken.
So, drama and fun over, and let’s all move on. That seems to be the attitude of leading Republicans. Trump himself resorted to a habitual tweet to lament: “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?”
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017
Trump is correct to highlight leaks because the full story might not have come out without digging by reporters, notably on the Washington Post and New York Times, aided by critical commentary on CNN and other media.
The story as we know it now is that Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, told White House counsel Donald McGahn on January 26 about telephone calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador on December 29, details of which had been intercepted by the FBI. McGahn told the president, and launched a review, including interviewing Flynn. Four days later, Yates was sacked by Trump for refusing to defend his executive order banning travel to the US by Syrian refugees.
One real question concerns the way the White House is being run, sometimes as if its principals are auditioning for a skit on Saturday Night Live. Melissa McCarthy captured Sean Spicer brilliantly, much to the anger of Trump, who clearly has a problem with women in drag. Impersonator Alec Baldwin indeed seems more presidential than Trump himself.
Watch: Melissa McCarthy on Saturday Night Live
All administrations have teething problems in making the transition from free-for-all campaigning to serious governing. But, in the Trump regime, there are many people competing for the president’s ear and a slice of power, almost like rehearsals for The Apprentice.
What makes this worse is that Trump ambitiously claimed he would not only drain the Washington swamp, but also reset America’s relations with the rest of the world.
In power, he has behaved as if his election – though with 2.8 million fewer votes than rival Hillary Clinton – allows him to do anything he wishes without questioning, almost as if the US government and people have become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Trump Organisation.
Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old political operative never elected to office, who has the title of senior adviser to the president, went on weekend television shows to give a chilling and unblinking defence of Trump and warning the media of Trump’s powers. It was reminiscent of the propaganda departments of the worst totalitarian countries of the 1950s and 1960s. Trump praised Miller’s performances, saying “Congratulations, Stephen Miller. Great job.”
Watch: “The president’s powers are beyond question,” says Stephen Miller
Talk of totalitarian regimes raises the other leading question of why Flynn was talking to the Russian ambassador and at whose behest.
Security intercepts show that Flynn had not one but five phone calls with the Russian ambassador on December 29. This was the day when then president Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, including expelling Russian diplomats. The widespread expectation was that Russia would respond in kind with time-honoured tit-for-tat expulsions of Americans, a course recommended by its foreign minister.
Instead, on December 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he would not retaliate and invited children from the US embassy to a Christmas party. Trump tweeted his praise of Putin.
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
The obvious questions are, if Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador – as the resigning Flynn admitted – at whose behest was he doing it and what did he promise? Was there at least a nod and wink that the new president would roll back sanctions? It seems unthinkable that a freelance or rogue Flynn would need more than a single phone call.
The other mystery is why Trump, who has been hard to harsh against every other country and leader, whether friend or foe, from Australia to China, the European Union, Japan, Mexico, or Nato, is so soft on Putin and Russia, which have worked assiduously to undermine the West and the US over a long period.
The latest leaks assert that senior Trump aides were in touch with leading Russian operatives throughout the US election campaign, in spite of the denials. There is an awful lot of suffocating smoke around Trump’s White House, which is not dissipated by the prevailing lack of transparency and honesty.
Kevin Rafferty has reported from Washington under six US president from the 1970s onwards