The White House sought Tuesday to quickly contain the fallout from the ouster of national security advisor Michael Flynn, but President Trump and top aides found themselves mired in further disarray as more details emerged that undermined their portrayal of the matter.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer contradicted assertions that he and other senior aides had made a day earlier about internal deliberations over Flynn’s contact with a Russian diplomat. Taken together, the various accounts suggested that Trump knew three weeks ago that Flynn had misrepresented the interactions but moved to dismiss Flynn only once they became public.
On Capitol Hill, momentum grew for a more far-reaching investigation of Russia’s attempts to influence U.S. government at its highest levels.
The White House would not say whether Flynn had misled the president but blamed Flynn’s misrepresentations to Vice President Mike Pence and others for his downfall.
“The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances is what led the president to ask for Gen. Flynn's resignation,” Spicer said in his daily press briefing. He didn’t elaborate on the other issues.
Nor did he put to rest questions about what Trump and others in the White House knew about whether Flynn had discussed newly implemented Obama administration sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, which would be a breach of protocol and possibly illegal.
The Flynn episode is the latest misstep from a White House whose defiant attitude upon taking office has eased in recent days, perhaps most notably with the near-silence this week of Trump’s normally busy Twitter account.
“This is a full-blown crisis, and it is a hair’s thread from unraveling the administration, and I don’t know if they’re prepared for what’s coming,” said Rick Tyler, a Republican consultant who knows many of the top players in the White House.
Flynn came under fire last month amid reports that in phone calls and text messages he and Kislyak discussed the Obama administration’s new sanctions over Moscow’s meddling in the U.S. election. Such talks might violate the Logan Act, a 1799 law prohibiting private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments.
Flynn and other administration officials, including Pence, denied those reports. But Flynn’s denials unraveled late last week after news stories revealed the existence of a transcript of his contacts with Kislyak, which were recorded as part of routine U.S. intelligence monitoring of foreign officials’ communications.
The timeline that has emerged, pieced together from information from the White House, law enforcement and intelligence officials, news accounts and other public information, shows a White House trying to contain Flynn’s breach but seeming to act only when explosive information was revealed widely or about to be.
Flynn and Kislyak were in touch in late December, including on the 29th, the day the Obama administration levied the sanctions.
The exchanges between Flynn and Kislyak were first revealed in a column in the Washington Post on Jan. 12, and Trump’s transition team scrambled to explain that the conversations were limited. Flynn contended that he had not acted improperly.
He and Kislyak did not talk “to relieve sanctions,” he said in an interview Monday with the conservative website Daily Caller, hours before he would resign. “It was basically to say, ‘Look, we’re coming into office in a couple of weeks. Give us some time to take a look at everything.’”
Pence echoed Flynn’s claim on CBS News on Jan. 15. Obama administration officials grew concerned over the possibility that Flynn had lied to Pence, meaning Flynn might be vulnerable to blackmail by Russians who could threaten to expose him, said the former official. But Pence himself didn’t become aware of the “incomplete” account for another two weeks, his spokesman said, and only found out from a news report.
After Trump was inaugurated Jan. 20, the FBI interviewed Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak, said a U.S. official who did not describe what Flynn told investigators.
Spicer defended Flynn at his daily briefing Jan. 23. That prompted then-acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates, a career prosecutor and Obama administration holdover, to tell White House Counsel Donald McGahn three days later that Flynn might be susceptible to blackmail, according to Spicer. He questioned why the Department of Justice waited until then to make its concerns known.
McGahn told Trump, who ordered an internal review, Spicer said. McGahn concluded that Flynn hadn’t broken the law. But he did not immediately review transcripts of Flynn's calls to corroborate his claims, officials said later.
Trump did not act at the time, though he was aware that Flynn’s assertions belied the truth. Spicer characterized Trump as “unbelievably decisive” in ordering a review of Flynn’s actions.
Nonetheless, Spicer said, a “trust issue” arose and festered, and Trump ultimately concluded that “he had to make a change.” White House officials met with at least one possible replacement for Flynn last week.
Officials confirmed that Flynn apologized to Pence only on Friday.
“For the vice president, I feel terrible,” Flynn told the Daily Caller. “I put him in a position. He’s a man of incredible integrity.”
As late as Monday morning, Flynn said, Trump was encouraging him to defend himself, and the White House continued to publicly stand by Flynn until an abrupt shift late Monday afternoon, when Spicer said Trump was “evaluating” Flynn’s standing. Around the same time, the Post was preparing to publish a story that Yates had told the White House about her concerns, which were not yet public. Hours later, the White House announced Flynn had resigned.
By Tuesday, the change in tenor was complete. Trump, in recent weeks, had been “very concerned that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others,” Spicer said, without specifying whether the president believed he himself was misled.
“The president must have complete and unwavering trust for the person in that position,” Spicer said.
Congressional Republicans nervously absorbed the unfolding drama and debated how aggressively to investigate the White House's dealings with Russia as Democrats pushed for an independent review to assess whether Flynn was acting alone or at the direction of others.
“The intelligence committee is already looking at Russian involvement in our election,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “It's highly likely they'd want to take a look at this episode as well.”
“We’re all wrestling” with the best way to investigate Russia’s influence on the political process, said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee.
Times staff writers Lisa Mascaro, Brian Bennett and Noah Bierman contributed to this report.
6:15 p.m.: This article was updated with more details from the White House and comment from Flynn.
1:15 p.m.: This article was updated with comment from the White House.
10:20 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho).
9:55 a.m.: This article was updated with comment from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.).
This article was originally published at 9:40 a.m.