High drama in Trumpland

CHANGING POLICIES, SHUFFLING OF OFFICIALS

Michael Flynn lasted 25 days as US President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor before resigning, making his tenure the shortest in the American NSA history. His ouster comes as a growing cloud of scandal envelopes the White House over its reported ties with the Kremlin.

The former three-star general leaves after a series of stories were published in the US media outlining his communications with Russia’s ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and as his story changed as to what those conversations entailed. 

In his resignation letter, Flynn explained, “unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologised to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”

But if Trump thought that Flynn’s departure would close the topic, he was wrong. The US intelligence seems to have collected phone records and intercepted calls showing that the people surrounding Trump had been in touch with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. There is a full-on war between Trump and American intelligence establishment.

Flynn became the second top Trump official to resign over linkages to the Kremlin. In August, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort stepped down amid questions over his work for pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs. Rather unhelpfully, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defence of Flynn from Moscow.

Flynn is also being investigated by the army on whether he received money from the Russian gover­nment during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015. Any payment could violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from accepting money from a foreign government without an OK from Congress.

Last year, Flynn had suggested that he was paid by RT — a Kremlin-funded mouthpiece — to appear at the event, in which he was seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It was Washington Post, which reported that just after Trump’s January 20 inauguration, acting attorney general Sally Q Yates informed the White House that she believed Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with Kislyak.

Yates would later be fired by Trump for refusing to carry out his executive order banning travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. Yates argued with the administration that Flynn’s evasions could make him a blackmail risk.

Flynn had initially denied that sanctions came up in his conversations, but later walked that back, insisting he couldn’t recall if the subject came up or not. Vice President Mike Pence was reportedly furious that Flynn had misled him on the issue, causing Pence to defend Flynn on national television in the days before the inauguration.

There has been widespread chaos at the NSC with many NSC staffers reportedly deciding to go back to their home agencies rather than work for Flynn. The front-runner to take over the NSC was retired US Navy Vice Admiral Bob Harward, who served as Defence Secretary Jim Mattis’ deputy at the US Central Command.

But he turned down Trump’s offer after he was denied the authority to select his own national security council staff. Trump finally selected Gen H R McMaster as his new national security advisor, whose book, Dereliction of Duty, about the failure of American generals to push back against civilian leaders during the Vietnam War, earned him a reputation as a both a talented academic and a general inclined to speak truth to power.

There are multiple institutional challenges that are emerging. Most significant of which is the continuing marginalisation of the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His choice of a deputy, Elliott Abrams, has been scuttled by the president and he was not consulted on a major policy change on Palestinian statehood or putting Iran “on notice” for its most recent ballistic missile test. As the nation’s chief diplomat, he has been largely absent from the president’s key meetings with world leaders.

Trump who had claimed to be a great manager during his campaign is now looking at a leader completely out of depth in his new job. The US intelligence community is so convinced that Trump and his administration have been compromised by Russia that they’re no longer giving the White House all of their most sensitive information, lest it end up in Putin’s hands.

Targeting Trump

After getting Flynn, Trump’s detractors will be hoping to target Trump himself. During the campaign, Trump publicly called on Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails. Since becoming president, his statements on Russia have been all over the place. His UN ambassador Nikki Haley condemned Russia and insisted sanctions imposed over the seizure of Crimea were here to stay. But when Trump was asked about Putin being a “killer,” he suggested the US government has no moral standing to criticise him.

That the Flynn scandal erupted at a time when North Korea decided to test the Trump administration by test firing a nuclear-capable missile into the Sea of Japan further complicates decision-making in Washington. Anticipating North Korean provocations, Trump had already ordered a national review of policy options for dealing with Pyongyang.

But it had now become imperative for Trump to get a grip on governance and policy-making. How he manages these initial few months will, in more ways than one, determine the long-term sustainability of his presidency. After all, Russia’s foreign minister has spoken of a “post-West world order” and China’s president has called for his country to help guide a “new world order.”

Trump will have to navigate his country at a time when there are fundamental questions about America’s ability to lead the world and his idiosyncratic style has not helped.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi and Professor of International Relations, King’s College, London)
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