By Seth J. Frantzman
“There does appear to be a well orchestrated effort to attack [former National Security Advisor] Flynn and others in the administration,” US Congressman Devin Nunes, Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told Eli Lake Monday. “From the leaking of phone calls between the president and foreign leaders to what appears to be high-level FISA Court information, to the leaking of American citizens being denied security clearances, it looks like a pattern.”
The pattern that Lake alleges is that people within the US government are engaging in a private war with the new US administration. “Selectively disclosing details of private conversations monitored by the FBI or NSA gives the permanent state the power to destroy reputations from the cloak of anonymity. This is what police states do,” he writes. “Flynn was a fat target for the national security state. He has cultivated a reputation as a reformer and a fierce critic of the intelligence community leaders he once served with when he was the director the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama.” Charles Krauthammer has also advanced this narrative.
If this is even partially accurate it points to an attempt by the deep state to alter the current US administration. For those who opposed Flynn’s appointment in the first place, or oppose Trump, Flynn was low hanging fruit that could be scandalized and picked off. It plays into the hands of opponents of Donald Trump who have long argued that his connections to Russia and Russia’s apparent support for him during the campaign constitute an unprecedented challenge and manipulation for the US. David Frum at The Atlantic asks “who else has ties to the Russian state?” The picture that is being painted is that Flynn is the tip of the iceberg, he is the first resignation forced from the Trump administration, but opponents smell blood in the water. He won’t be the last, they say.
Democratic Congressman Seth Moulton accused Flynn of treason. Michael Moore tweeted “what part of ‘vacate you Russian traitor’ don’t you understand,” and noted that it would end in impeachment or resignation, like Richard Nixon. Some mass media are openly using the “treason” talking point. To build on the Flynn resignation, The New York Times has “reported that American law enforcement and intelligence agencies found ‘repeated contacts’ between Mr Trump’s campaign staff and associates and senior Russian intelligence operatives in the year leading up to the election.” Perhaps not since the accusations Joe McCarthy accused the US government of being infiltrated by communist agents with his infamous “list” in the 1950s, have so many high ranking US officials been tarred as “traitors.”
The model today is not the 1950s but the slow snowball that eventually removed Richard Nixon from office. The firing of acting attorney general Sally Yates was labelled a new “saturday night massacre” to conjure up Nixon’s own firing of attorney General Elliot L. Richardson and Deputy Attorney General William D. Ruckelshaus. It has now been reported that Yates played a role in the resignation of Flynn. Fortune noted that “Yates—along with former national intelligence director James Clapper Jr. and CIA director John Brennan—told the incoming administration that ‘Flynn had put himself in a compromising position” at the end of last year and was vulnerable to blackmail because of his potentially illegal discussions of U.S. sanctions with the diplomat.'” The removal of Yates and the making public of the Flynn phone calls could be seen as connected.
Nixon understood the nature of politics. He said that it was rarely the actions of someone that were what the press latched on to, but rather the “lie.” When people are caught in a lie, it ends in their resignation. Once people believe someone lied, they believe other things about them. Flynn was accused of lying to the Vice-President and this is what destroyed him. To out him as a liar, intercepted communications were presented to the President by members of the security establishment.
Trump has the same alliance of opponents that nagged and ate away at Nixon, until Nixon’s paranoia laid a trap for himself: Mainstream media, Democrats, activists, the old establishment. In this case it is slightly different. It took five years for Nixon to go. Trump’s problems have begun within a month. It now looks likely that major media will drive this scandal to its next level, untangling the ball bit by bit by trying to connect Flynn to other problems within Trump’s circle. “Trump aids in constant touch with Russians during campaign,” read the CNN lead story headline on February 15. “Trump knew about Flynn and Russia for weeks,” is another headline. This will give Congress a boost to investigate. Some Republicans will be weaned off and encouraged to confront the administration with the hope they end up with Vice-President Pence, who is more palatable to traditional conservatives.
The intelligence community is angered by Trump not only because he is an outsider (rather then a known quantity such as Hillary Clinton might have been) but because there are voices who believe that Russia deeply influenced the election and by doing so have shown that US intelligence was unable to stop the influence. Trump played into this during the campaign through his tweets and comments, even hoping that Russia finds “the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Since the election there has been a quietly mounting narrative against Trump on the Russia issue. It ties in to other reasons his opponents detest him, whether it relates to comments on women, the “Muslim ban,” racism or other issues. But the Russia issue appears more significant because opponents know that Trump can’t be impeached for being offensive, he can’t be impeached for issuing an executive order that is overturned by a court, and despite claims he is “mentally unfit,” the feeling in some sectors in Washington is that the Russia issue is the one that will trip up the administration the most.
The question is where it leads next. Congressional hearings and investigations? More FBI or other leaks? Another officials caught in scandals? Reports about thee office of Government Ethics accusations against Kellyanne Conway have become murmurs in the media and Washington that could threaten her position. The game plan will be to remove, one by one, those closest to Trump and tar them. Stephen Bannon, Stephen Miller, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump. This will expose Trump, much like a King exposed in chess. it will also leave the more important parts of the US government, such as Rex Tillerson at the State Department and James Mattis at Defense, functioning and untouched. They both, currently, seem to be acceptable to the Trump opponents.
The White House, understaffed and now without a National Security Advisor, is not nearly as strong as the Nixon White House was before Watergate broke. It has little experience dealing with scandals although Trump himself has dealt with accusations and attempts to scandalize him for a year and a half of campaigning and survived it all, seemingly unscathed. He has succeed in the motto “never complain, never explain,” as a political method. But the White House is not a campaign bus. Flynn is just the beginning. An opening salvo.
*** update ***
Donald Trump, in a series of tweets on Wednesday, thanked Eli Lake for his piece, and wrote that “the real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” But can Trump win an open and shadowy conflict with his own intelligence agencies?