FEBRUARY 15, 2017
So National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has become the first casualty of the Russian connection. Not counting Paul Manafort and Carter Page, thrown off the Trump Train during the presidential campaign. Not counting two Russian intelligence agents arrested for treason, who may or may not have been involved in hacking the U.S. election, who may or may not have been assisting the CIA. Not counting Christopher Steele, the former MI-6 agent and author of the notorious Russian dossier, currently in hiding.
So call Mike Flynn the first high-level casualty of the Russian connection. He’s likely the thin edge of the wedge. His Monday night resignation—ostensibly for misleading the vice president about conversations he had with a Russian official before Mr. Trump took office—has revved up the investigative axis in Washington. What did Mr. Trump and his aides know and when did they know it? Did Mike Flynn just take a bullet for the president?
Before the circus moves on from the spectacle of Flynn fallen in the arena, it’s worth noting that he served his country with honor and distinction for thirty-three years in the United States Army, rising to the rank of lieutenant general. He led dangerous intelligence missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Later, apparently the same qualities that made him a successful battlefield intelligence leader got him in trouble as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
In the wake of the Flynn resignation, Democrats are calling for an “independent investigation” of the Russian connection. What they mean by that is not entirely clear, probably a specially charted commission, a special select committee or a special prosecutor. In any case, none of that is going to happen, at least not anytime soon.
First, the institutional probes will play out. The FBI, CIA, NSA and Treasury are up to something, according to the New York Times—an inter-agency task force, a “working group,” whatever. President Trump owns the executive branch for the moment and you can be sure this FBI-led effort is under tremendous pressure. John Schindler reports that the intelligence community is “starting to push back” against the president, a move with enormous implications.
In Congress, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Intelligence Committee have opened broad investigations. The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by John McCain, will take a run at cyber-threats and Russia, before handing off the matter to a new cyber-security subcommittee. Elsewhere, major media groups are tasking reporting teams on the issue and the internet is alive with freelancers and interested parties—cue the usual carnival of conspiracy theories, dangerous craziness and occasional wisdom.
The essential investigative question for all these inquiries is the same. How deep? How deep into the U.S. electoral system did Moscow penetrate? And how deep is the Kremlin into Donald Trump?
Getting answers won’t be easy. Kremlin-linked hacking activities and related intelligence activities are a wilderness of mirrors. Mr. Trump has a long history of dealings in Russia and with Russians, and so far has resisted detailed disclosure. Cynics will say that Jim Comey will roll over one more time for Team Trump, but I don’t buy that. The inter-agency investigation led by the FBI, in my view, is the one to watch.
For the media and the internet gang, the temptation to chase rabbits down holes will be irresistible. The Trump Administration has decided to make the media the enemy, so expect relentless attacks on “fake news” and the like. But as the Flynn episode demonstrates, the media have an ally in the U.S. intelligence community. If you’re keeping score at home, Mr. Flynn’s resignation was forced not so much by his speaking with the Russians, but by public disclosure of those conversations, most likely through IC leaks. Look for the media and leaks to drive story. More evidence of that came last night with a New York Times disclosure that Trump associates “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” in 2016. President Trump fired back this morning, tweeting that the “real scandal” was the leaking of intelligence information.
Congress will struggle with its investigations, mainly because it’s a Republican-led institution investigating a Republican president. The institutional pressures to back off will be intense. The executive branch will slow-roll document production and balk at providing witnesses. Congressional subpoenas are basically useless and anyway the Republicans won’t go there. The minority Democrats have limited options. Kicking and screaming only gets you so far.
Congressional investigations often are tripped up by their dual mandate. They’re supposed to get to the bottom of something—Benghazi, Fast & Furious, Lois Lerner and the IRS, Whitewater, Iran-Contra, etc.—but they also have a public information role. Tell us what happened. The most successful congressional investigations have focused on telling the story. Based on what we already know—a tumultuous election, foreign intelligence hacking, sensational charges and presidential politics—the Russian connection reports should read like thrillers.
In the public information role, Congress should be hearing from Messrs. Flynn, Manafort and Page, along with top Trump aides Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon, on what they knew about the Russian connection and when they knew it. And what, if anything, they told Mr. Trump. As I noted in December, unusual Russia-connected episodes unfolded through the presidential campaign and mark Mr. Trump’s business history. Mr. Trump’s tax records are a Rosetta Stone to the Russian connection, at least as it relates to the president’s financial ties to the country. IRS Commissioner John Koskinen would handle any congressional directive to produce the records for confidential intelligence committee reviews. Or not. Mr. Koskinen cut a private-sector business deal with Mr. Trump back in 1975 and they have been friends ever since.
Micah Morrison is chief investigative reporter for Judicial Watch. Follow him on Twitter @micah_morrison. Tips: email@example.com
Investigative Bulletin is published weekly by Judicial Watch. Reprints and media inquiries: firstname.lastname@example.org.