Shell-shocked White House officials and their allies searched Tuesday for someone to blame for the late-night resignation of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. His supporters within a somewhat divided White House quickly decided that Flynn himself did nothing wrong.
Yes, Flynn may have spoken in secret with the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak just as the Obama administration was imposing new sanctions on the Kremlin. And some even concede it’s possible that Flynn, a retired lieutenant general, wasn’t entirely forthright with people like Vice President Mike Pence about those conversations.
But as White House officials tried to pick up the pieces—one staffer likened the scene to “Saving Private Ryan Omaha Beach”—some of them maintained that the real villains in the Flynn story were the former Obama administration staffers who leaked the damaging information about him, and the media for running with it.
At least, that was the story, until White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer took to the podium. Spicer insisted that Flynn had done “nothing wrong”—but also squarely blamed Flynn for his own professional demise. “The President was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the Vice President and others,” Spicer added. “The question wasn't if [Flynn] did anything improper or legal, but could he be trusted further.”
It was one of a number of topsy-turvy statements in a roller coaster of a day. Spicer added that the president has been “incredibly tough” on Russia—despite nearly a year-and-a-half of evidence to the contrary. Then Spicer said that the White House had been aware of issues surrounding Flynn’s talks for “weeks.” On Friday, Trump seemed to indicate he had no knowledge of such problems.
Senior administration officials in Flynn’s camp were sounding a very different tune. One blamed many of the leaks about Flynn on holdovers from the Obama administration still working at outside law enforcement and national security agencies.
“These assholes have impunity to leak classified documents to destroy an innocent man,” the frustrated official told The Daily Beast early Tuesday morning. “They shiv you with one hand and plug you with the other.”
Flynn was hamstrung by not being able to remember exactly what he discussed with the Russian ambassador, and his inability to see the evidence against him, this senior administration official added.
“There was no way for him to look at the transcripts while he was under siege,” of his conversations with the Russian official, recorded by U.S. intelligence. “If he had asked for it, it would have looked like he was trying to influence the process,” the official said.
So Flynn apologized to Pence, according to this official. Flynn said he didn’t recall the conversation because he genuinely didn't and couldn’t check to see what he actually said—a situation that might change if Flynn is forced to testify before Congress, in which Flynn would likely get legal counsel to defend him.
The President, for his part, had a simpler explanation.
“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” he tweeted.
House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, a close ally of the administration, told Bloomberg View that "there does appear to be a well orchestrated effort to attack Flynn and others in the administration."
The pro-Trump cheerleaders at Breitbart News blamed Chief of Staff Reince Preibus for relying too much on Obama holdovers to keep the government running. “They’re hiding like sleeper cells everywhere,” one anonymous source told the outlet.
And longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone tweeted that “Reince’s purge of Flynn” was a “‘Pearl Harbor’ for Trump loyalists. Hope the midget is ready to rumble.”
But that analysis was quickly contradicted by Spicer. The “level of trust between the president and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change,” the press secretary said.
House intelligence committee ranking member Adam Schiff, for one, was not particularly impressed with the about-face.
"The White House knew for weeks that Flynn had been lying about his conversations with the Russian ambassador," Adam Schiff told The Daily Beast. "They weren't going to say anything about it. It's only when the story became public that they decided they had to act."
And, outside of the pro-Trump bubble, people found it easier to fault Flynn himself for his own downfall. No one forced him to make a paid appearance in Moscow in 2015 to celebrate a Kremlin propaganda outfit. No one made him sit at the same table as Vladimir Putin, or give the Russian strongman a standing ovation. And no one—at least as far as we know—forced Flynn to call the Russian ambassador and tell him that warmer relations were ahead.
“I’m disappointed for him, personally, I’m disappointed for him,” said Gen. Tony Thomas, head of Special Operations Command. “But life’s all about decisions,” he said, speaking to reporters at the National Defense Industry Association conference outside Washington, D.C.
“We’re staying focused, but as we talk about the strategy going forward, I think it’s important that the government is as stable as possible,” Thomas said of the recent chaos at the White House.
Were there leaks from inside the NSC? Of course there were. “But the notion that these are political is wrong. These are patriots,” argued a former Obama administration official in comments to The Daily Beast. “They are all staff, from CIA, the State Department and Defense Department. They are...the all-star team from their respective agencies.”
“The reason why they are leaking is because they are cut out of the process and the process is dysfunctional,” the official said of conversations he had with such staffers still working at the NSC. “They are horrified. The general sense that the only way to impact policy is to get it on a morning show.”
The former official said case in point was how no heed was paid to internal NSC staffers’ critiques of the refugee order.
“They were asked at the last minute to raise objections on the immigration and refugee EO, once it had been leaked to the press. They produced seven pages of comments, criticisms and complaints—all the issues that have since come up as problems for the order—and they were ignored.”
The senior administration official said the refugee order was not run out of Flynn's office.
Flynn did not reply to requests for comment, but a close friend of Flynn’s from years deployed in the special operations fight against al Qaeda said the transition had been “a wild and wooly time” when Flynn had juggled multiple phone calls with international contacts, with insufficient staff to help manage the deluge, or to keep notes on the specifics of the discussions.
Retired Lt. Gen. Joseph Kellogg will serve in Flynn’s place as acting national security adviser, for now. But how long he will stay in the position is, at this point, unknown. A senior administration official said retired Navy SEAL Vice Admiral Robert Harward is the leading candidate to permanently replace Flynn, ahead of retired Gen. David Petraeus. As The Daily Beast previously noted, Harward worked closely with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis throughout his career, including serving as his deputy when Mattis headed Central Command.
Thomas called Harward—who was involved in some of the same elite missions Thomas has led or participated in over his service—"a very accomplished officer."
How long Harward will remain the frontrunner for Flynn’s old chair is unknown, however. “Anyone who says they know what will happen is full of shit. Nobody knows who Trump will pick,” a White House official told The Daily Beast.
National Security Council staff “are all worried, they don’t know who’s going to come in and if they’re gonna bring them with them,” said another official.
Rumors and counter-rumors ran quickly through the White House’s staff. Two sources said they would expect Counselor to the President Steve Bannon and his new internal think tank, the “Strategic Initiatives Group,” to have a bit more job security than the others. Two different sources said the exact opposite, saying Bannon and his deputies might be swept aside. No one was really sure what was informed conjecture—and what was pure speculation.
Meetings scheduled for Tuesday morning were all postponed or cancelled as staffers in limbo made unlikely alliances—contingency plans if an unexpected name came through the door. Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarlane, was said to be preparing her exit, but White House officials said she was encouraged to stay.
"There is no effort to show her the door. She is very well liked," the official said. The officials spoke anonymously to discuss the sensitive personnel matter.
“Everyone can be gone tomorrow and they know that and that’s what it looks like at NSC right now,” a White House source said, noting that these are all political appointee positions. “You could be gone tomorrow. You could be gone this afternoon.”
Republicans, meanwhile, were eager to move on from the unpleasant news cycle. Rep. Nunes, for one, said the House’s intelligence committee isn’t going to investigate discussions between Flynn and Trump, citing executive privilege. Nunes said he was told earlier on Monday that Trump still had confidence in Flynn. When asked what had changed, the congressman replied, “I don't know—they didn’t tell me.”
Other lawmakers, like Republican Sen. David Perdue, were ready to declared the matter closed with Flynn’s resignation.
“It’s an unfortunate circumstance, it’s been resolved,” Purdue said Tuesday morning. Asked about whether Congress should authorize an independent investigation into Russia’s influence in the U.S. government, he responded, “I don’t know the details of this, and we'll find out.”
Asked by The Daily Beast how he expected to find out the details without an independent investigation, Perdue left without answering further questions.
“I think that situation has taken care of itself,” Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, told reporters on Tuesday morning. “I know that the Intel committee is looking into the hacking issue.”
Chaffetz added that he thought Flynn “did the right thing stepping down.” House speaker Paul Ryan also noted during a Capitol Hill press conference that “I think the president made the right decision to ask for [Flynn’s] resignation”—even though the White House had not yet confirmed whether or not Trump actually did.
When pressed on whether he would support further investigations into Flynn’s activities, the House speaker deflected.
"I think we need to get all of that information before we prejudge anything," Ryan said. He also emphasized that, personally, he has long been a “Russia skeptic,” however.
Democrats, however, were across the board calling for an immediate, comprehensive investigation.
The contacts between Russia and the president's circle "highlights the need for open hearings, it highlights the need to use the subpoena power to get to the bottom of it, it in my view makes the case for the urgency of that effort," said Sen. Ron Wyden, a Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "My commitment here… is to make sure this is not swept under the rug."
During a press conference, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley blasted Flynn, saying that Flynn “was fired just because he was not a good enough liar,” and that it is “becoming increasingly clear President Trump is leading a very dysfunctional White House.”
Republicans are already showing signs that they feel that pressure. Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn said that ongoing investigations into Russian influence should also investigate Flynn, even if he disagreed with having an independent commission to do it.
“We’ll follow the investigation where it leads,” Cornyn said.
Flynn’s resignation could also change the nature of these ongoing Congressional investigations by forcing them to become more transparent. The Senate Intelligence Committee is the primary panel responsible for looking into Russia’s election interference. It’s something that Democrats have criticized due to the committee’s penchant for secrecy and private hearings.
“It’s in the intel committee primarily because they don’t want it to have it be public hearings.… this deserves a public airing. This is of primary importance,” said Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill.
But Sen. Bob Corker, a senior GOP lawmaker on national security affairs, said he believed that the committee would hold additional open hearings into Russian influence.
“This is going to go on forever if we don’t address it somehow,” Corker said.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has already held one open hearing on the matter, in January.
“What does President Trump have to hide?” Crowley asked rhetorically. “We need a real investigation into Russia…This is not going to be the end.”
“I do think there needs to be fulsome investigation on all angles relative to the nefarious activities that were taking place with Russia beginning in March, but even going back before that time,” Corker said. “I haven't come to a conclusion as to the best way for that to occur, but I know we've got to do it soon. This heightens that, obviously.”
Schiff said he will be reaching out to Nunes to discuss joining forces with the Senate intelligence committees to turn their bipartisan investigation into a joint effort to excavate Russian interference with the U.S. election, focused on contacts between Flynn and other Trump officials with Moscow not just during but after the polls.
“Where these contacts done at the behest of the president with his knowledge? And the other question is, if they were not, when did the president learn about the report from the justice dept and why didn't the president act sooner?” Schiff said.
On the House side of Congress, Schiff said it would take support of the majority to issue subpoenas to ask Flynn and others to testify. He said he was discouraged to hear the House Speaker Paul Ryan decline to investigate, but pointed out there were also bills in the House and Senate to launch independent investigations into Russian meddling.
—with additional reporting by Asawin Suebsaeng, Tim Mak, and Noah Shachtman
UPDATE 2:47 PM: This story has been updated to include comments from Sean Spicer, several senators, and White House staffers.