Flynn Resignation Stirs Larger Concerns on Capitol Hill
Michael Flynn's resignation as President Trump's national security adviser might have closed the retired general’s brief, tumultuous chapter at the White House — but it raised new questions and concerns Tuesday on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers of both parties called for congressional inquiry into Flynn’s role. More significantly, it raised alarms that the country's essential national security apparatus is in disarray.
The latter only begins with Flynn and won't end with his departure. Sen. John McCain, who chairs the Armed Services Committee, warned in a statement that Flynn’s resignation “is a troubling indication of the dysfunction” in the current national security operation.
At the heart of the problem is a lack of clarity regarding who has been truly calling the shots, McCain elaborated later — Flynn prior to his resignation? Or Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist who was granted a seat on the elite National Security Council Principals Committee? Perhaps Stephen Miller, the senior policy adviser who was the face of the administration in a slew of news appearances Sunday? Or someone else?
“We don’t know who’s in charge. We don’t know who’s making the decisions,” McCain said. “…Every administration I’ve dealt with, going back to [President] Reagan, they have a process with national security decision-making, and we know who’s in charge. ... Right now we don’t know who it is.”
The sustained chaos in the administration, now with nearly one month under its belt, has not unnerved all Republican lawmakers: Sen. Tom Cotton chuckled, literally, at the notion of a dysfunctional national security organization.
“Every administration has to find its sea legs,” said Cotton, who sits on the intelligence and armed services committees.
By any historical measure, however, Flynn set a new mark among senior advisers in a young White House: coming under the scrutiny of the intelligence community even before Trump took office and resigning in record time.
Flynn’s problems stem from his discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. prior to Trump taking office, when Flynn assured the diplomat on sanctions — a potential violation of the Logan Act, restricting private citizens from undermining U.S. foreign policy. Those conversations alone have reportedly been the focus of questioning by the intelligence community. But Flynn’s troubles deepened when he mischaracterized his communications to Vice President Mike Pence, who then spoke publicly — and incorrectly — based on Flynn’s assurances, according to the administration.
“The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation in a series of other questionable instances is what led the president to ask for Gen. Flynn's resignation,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.
The saga has alarmed many Republican lawmakers, including the party leadership, who broadly expressed approval Tuesday for Flynn’s resignation and, in some cases, support for further inquiry.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it is “highly likely” Flynn would face scrutiny as part of a previously announced Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into Russia’s role in the election. And Sen. Roy Blunt, part of the Senate Republican leadership team, urged the committee to investigate Flynn “exhaustively” as part of its broader probe.
“What did he know? What did he do? And is there any reason to believe that anybody knew that and didn't take the kind of action they should have taken?" Blunt told a St. Louis radio station. "For all of us, finding out if there's a problem or not, and sooner rather than later, is the right thing to do.”
But, because its proceedings would likely be classified, some Democrats warned that that inquiry alone would not suffice. Sen. Claire McCaskill charged that Republicans would contain the investigation to the intelligence panel “primarily because they don’t want it to have to be public hearings. I think that was Mitch McConnell’s decision.”
“This deserves a public airing,” McCaskill added.
The vice president, on Capitol Hill for meetings with Republicans, privately addressed the issue Tuesday as lawmakers pressed him for information. When he joined a lunch meeting of the Tuesday Group, comprised of centrist House Republicans, Rep. Charlie Dent asked Pence directly about Flynn.
“I said that a lot of us are being asked questions,” Dent told RealClearPolitics. Pence made “it pretty clear that there was a discrepancy between what Gen. Flynn may have said to the ambassador and what was presented to him,” but “seemed to accept that the resignation was an appropriate outcome,” Dent said.
House Republicans seemed to follow Pence’s lead: Speaker Paul Ryan on Tuesday dismissed the idea of an independent House investigation into Flynn, as did House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz.
“It’s taking care of itself,” Chaffetz said, pointing to Flynn’s resignation.
But there are mounting concerns, now being expressed at unusual volume among government officials, that the national security framework apart from Flynn is spinning out of control. Gen. Tony Thomas, head of the military’s Special Operations Command, warned Tuesday that the “government continues to be in unbelievable turmoil.”
“I hope they sort it out soon, because we’re a nation at war,” Thomas said, according to The New York Times. He added, “As a commander, I’m concerned our government be as stable as possible.”
McCain echoed Thomas, warning that the president has circumvented key advisers and national security decisions have been made without any consistent process. Flynn’s replacement, McCain added, would need to shift this dynamic to succeed.
“I would like to see Gen. Flynn replaced by somebody who is recognized by all of us as someone we can place a lot of confidence in,” McCain said. “But then that person has to have the authority to be in charge of national security.”
James Arkin contributed to this report.