National Security Adviser Michael Flynn must be punished for speaking to a Russian official about U.S. sanctions before the president took office—and for misleading his bosses about the contents of those conversations—outraged Democratic lawmakers told The Daily Beast.
“He was undermining the [Obama] administration’s… policy, to punish Russia for interfering in our elections. This was calling a foreign adversary’s ambassador after it was learned that they attacked us,” Rep. Eric Swalwell, the top Democrat on the House subcommittee that oversees the CIA, told The Daily Beast. “Until we get to the bottom of it, I don’t think he should have access to classified information.”
Of course, Flynn wouldn’t be able to perform his duties as Trump’s top national security aide without access to secret information. Such a punishment would essentially be a suspension.
The White House originally said that Flynn’s actions were innocuous. But the The Washington Post revealed late Thursday that Flynn had, in fact, suggested to the Russian ambassador that Obama’s sanctions against them were be quickly removed.
A Trump administration official told reporters Friday that The Washington Post report is accurate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive matter.
Flynn doesn’t remember speaking about this, the official said, but can’t be certain sanctions didn’t come up as he had dozens of calls and conversations with ambassadors around the time of the transition.
Flynn also apparently misled the Vice President, who went on television to deny that any conversations had been had with the Russian ambassador about sanctions. A White House source confirmed to The Daily Beast that Flynn and Pence had discussed Flynn’s conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and that Flynn did not tell Pence that sanctions had been discussed.
The Vice President's office did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Lawmakers on the left have already proposed a wishlist of responses, ranging from suspending Flynn of his access to classified information to forcing him to step down entirely.
“The White House holds the credential for the security clearance for Flynn. At the very least, while we get to the bottom of whether a law was broken by having a conversation with Russia, I think his security clearance and access to classified information should be put on hold,” Swalwell said.
In fact, measures like these would be typical if Flynn had held a less senior post in the administration. Making matters worse: the retired general already has a history of mishandling sensitive information.
“If they are implicated somehow in a counterintelligence investigation, and there’s questions about inappropriate communications with foreign officials, it would be standard procedure for [most people’s] clearance to be suspended while the investigation goes on,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer that specializes in clearance issues.
Others have seen enough to make a final judgement.
“Flynn needs to step down. The credibility of the White House with the American public and international community is at stake. The White House should immediately disclose exactly what took place,” Democratic Rep. Mike Quigley, a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Committee, told The Daily Beast. “This past week we had absolute denials, now we have, well, ‘maybe [he had these conversations]’ This is the time to come clean: what was said, what promises were made.”
Other senior Democrats added their voice to this chorus: Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee have both called upon Flynn to resign—if the allegations are true.
Even before this newest body of evidence against Flynn, Democrats were clamoring for a deeper investigation into his dealings with Russia. Earlier this week, top Democrats demanded a Department of Defense review of whether Flynn broke the law by attending a gala hosted by Russia Today, a Russian-funded propaganda outlet.
But the Flynn revelations have been met—for now—with a wall of silence among Senate Republicans, even those that are typically hawkish on Russia—the offices of Sens. Marco Rubio, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, for example, did not respond to requests for comment.
“I’ve always felt the best policy is to be truthful. I haven’t been briefed on this. I probably will be. We’ll follow this story. Beyond that I really can’t comment,” said Republican Sen. Ron Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee, on CNN Friday afternoon. Johnson wouldn’t say whether he would request access to any transcripts that may exist of Flynn’s conversations.
Three weeks into the Trump administration, however, there are signs that party unity will only protect the White House so much. Republican House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz indicated he was willing to rebuke senior Trump administration staff when he joined with a Democratic colleague to criticize Kellyanne Conway for promoting Ivanka Trump’s brand from the White House.
And Senate committees, led by Republicans, continue to investigate Russia’s interference with the U.S. presidential election, including whether the Trump campaign had ongoing discussions with Russian figures. This occurs even as U.S. officials have begun confirming some details in an intelligence dossier that alleged Trump had been compromised by the Russian government.
So while Republicans have remained silent for the time being, there are signs that this may not be a sustainable position, as more information about the ties between Russia and the Trump team continues to leak out.
—with additional reporting by Kimberly Dozier and Patricia Murphy.