Flynn is just the tip of the iceberg
The Cipher Brief interviews John McLaughlin, former Acting Director of the CIA:
The resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn came only three weeks into a whirlwind beginning for the Trump Administration. The Cipher Brief’s Leone Lakhani spoke to former Acting Director of the CIA John McLaughlin – who served seven presidents and watched three transitions closely – about how the next National Security Advisor can restore stability to the White House and its security strategy.
The Cipher Brief: How serious were the allegations against Michael Flynn? Was his resignation due to bad optics, a loss of trust with the President and Vice-President, or do you think there was a real security vulnerability?
John McLaughlin: We have a problem here in that we in the private sector don’t fully know the facts outside of what the White House has told us. It’s hard to know how extensive this problem is. Now that we know the Justice Department shared its information and concerns with the President and others, how could they have assumed that today’s questions would not eventually arise? Why would they be comfortable going ahead with “business as usual” in national security policy? Did they completely reject the idea that there could be a problem here that went beyond the trust level among White House officials? Did it not occur to them that when this came to light it would impact the trust that others have in the White House? It’s the answer to all of those questions that will tell us just how deep this problem runs, and what its consequences are. The problem could be much deeper than we now know.
TCB: Help our readers understand why the discussion of sanctions pre-inauguration is problematic.
JM: How problematic the discussion of sanctions is depends on what was said. I don’t think there would be anything wrong with acknowledging that the President had issued sanctions and moving on. The question is, was there some implication, or beyond an implication, a promise, to alter the sanctions policy once the administration took office?
Beyond the legal aspects raised by the Logan Act – this obscure 1799 provision about private citizens interfering in foreign policy – I think the problem would be simply one of propriety and of consorting with a country—Russia—that has quite clearly interfered in our election, and in a sense, condoning that interference. It’s more of a question of judgment and propriety than a legal question to me.
TCB: How disruptive do you think a change in the position of National Security Advisor will be to the implementation of the administration’s national security policies in general, and with regard to Russia in particular?
JM: It’s very disruptive to have this change occur at this time. But this is the tip of an iceberg. When you look at what we’ve seen in the last several days, it’s quite clear things are not going well. You have all these reversals in policy: you have someone close to the President come out and say the President has full confidence in General Flynn, only a short time later to have another presidential assistant tip the fact that the President is reviewing the situation. Then, a decision is made, in a matter of hours, for Flynn to resign.
When you have that kind of situation, one of two things is happening: either the White House is deliberately misleading, or people within the White House are not being truthful with each other. There’s clearly some mixture of communications problems, management issues, and substantive problems all swirling about in some kind of chaotic mixture at this point.
The important thing is for them to get someone in this position who has the ability to bring order to it, have credibility with the national security principals, be trusted by the President, and have a good relationship with the other people who manage the White House, such as the Chief of Staff.
TCB: How does this look from an international point of view, from Moscow, for example, or from other foreign capitals?
JM: I think it must be alarming to foreign capitals. On the one hand, the White House has, in the last week or so, taken some steps to calm concerns that allies in Asia had about American policy, and it has walked a fine line on foreign policy questions elsewhere such as the question of the NAFTA revision.
But beyond those somewhat reassuring moments, you have the specter of a White House about which the American system itself will be raising fundamental questions. I can’t imagine that the Congress will not want to have hearings to understand what was the content of Flynn’s conversations with the Russians. What did the White House Counsel do with information from the Justice Department about Russia potentially blackmailing Flynn? If others in the White House knew about this, what did they do? If nothing, why not? When you start down that road, you don’t know where that’s going to end.
That opens up a vista of uncertainty. All of these countries have – just as we have
Russia analysts and China analysts—they have America analysts. Their analysts right now are looking at this, and they’re doing what we do when we look at foreign countries. They are raising all of these questions, and they are laying out to their leaders scenarios about what could happen here that will create in capitals a sense of great uncertainty about what’s going on in the center of a country that is widely seen as the leader of the West, of the free world.
TCB: By all accounts, whoever takes this position as National Security Advisor will be entering a White House that’s been off to a pretty rocky start. Can any National Security Advisor be productive in such an atmosphere? Can the person be a stabilizing force?
JM: The short answer is yes, but it won’t be easy. It’s not something that is going to happen overnight. The problem is clearly broader than just the National Security Advisor.
We don’t know what, but there’s something going on in communications and interpersonal relations in the White House that is not working well. The first thing the new National Security Advisor, charged with the mission of bringing stability, has to do is figure out, what am I walking into? Who’s in charge here? Where do I fit in this system? Do I have the independence to operate with the mandate that I have?
That person first has to assess—probably even before taking the job—how achievable that is. In a way, the problem starts at the top. It’s the President who has to get his arms around this problem.
One of the problems this administration has is a deficit of trust because of the falsehoods they have engaged in. At the end of the day, this all depends upon the public, including the media, having a degree of trust in what the White House says and does.
TCB: Given all of your experience, are you surprised by what we’ve seen these past few weeks? . . .