WASHINGTON (AP) — The storm over national security adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia has led to his resignation less than a month into the Trump administration, a top White House official said Tuesday.
Flynn’s resignation — which was offered at the request of the president, according to one White House official — came after reported contradictions between the public accounting of the Russian contacts by Trump officials and what intelligence officials said they knew to be true based on routine recordings of communications with foreign officials in the U.S.
White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told NBC’s “Today” show that Flynn “knew he’d become a lightning rod” and made the decision to resign. Conway’s comments came one day after she said the president expressed “full confidence” in Flynn.
The revelations came at a time when the administration was already dealing with a major legal defeat on immigration, the troubled implementation of a signature policy, and some public relations missteps.
White House officials haven’t said when President Donald Trump was told of the Justice Department warning or why Flynn was allowed to stay on the job with access to a full range of intelligence materials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime Russia critic, said Congress needs to know what Flynn discussed with the ambassador and why.
“The idea that he did this on his own without any direction is a good question to ask,” Graham added.
Pence and others, apparently relying on information from Flynn, had said the national security adviser did not discuss U.S. economic sanctions against Russia with the Russian envoy during the American presidential transition. In his latest account of his pre-inauguration discussions with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn told officials the sanctions may have been discussed.
Such conversations breach diplomatic protocol and possibly violate the Logan Act, a law aimed at keeping private citizens from conducting U.S. diplomacy. The Justice Department warned the White House late last month that Flynn could be at risk for blackmail because of contradictions between his public depictions of the calls and what intelligence officials had reported.
Asked whether the president had been aware that Flynn might have planned to discuss sanctions with the Russian envoy, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, “No, absolutely not.”
President Trump named retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg as the acting national security adviser. Kellogg had previously been appointed chief of staff for the National Security Council and advised Trump during the campaign. The president was said to be considering former CIA Director David Petraeus and Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a U.S. Navy SEAL, for the post, according to a senior administration official.
House Speaker Paul Ryan said the president made the right decision in asking Flynn to step down.
“You cannot have the national security adviser misleading the vice president and others,” Ryan said.
Trump, conspicuously quiet about Flynn’s standing for several days, took to Twitter Tuesday morning and said the “real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” He ignored questions about Flynn from reporters Tuesday morning during an education event at the White House.
Kellogg convened a brief meeting of the National Security Council staff Tuesday and urged them to continue with business as usual. Staffers have been told that Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News analyst, is expected to stay at the White House.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Kislyak on the day the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, as well as at other times during the transition.
The officials and two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the Justice Department warnings on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Kremlin confirmed that Flynn was in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions. On Tuesday, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defense of Flynn.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, said in a post on Facebook that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is “not just paranoia but something even worse.” Kosachev also expressed frustration at the Trump administration:
“Either Trump hasn’t found the necessary independence and he’s been driven into a corner… or russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom,” he said.
The Washington Post was the first to report the communication between former acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, and the Trump White House. The Post also first reported last week that Flynn had spoken about sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Trump never voiced public support for Flynn after the initial report but continued to keep his national security adviser close. Flynn was part of Trump’s daily briefing on Monday and sat in on his calls with foreign leaders, as well as his discussions with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Flynn’s resignation “does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians.” He said the White House has yet to be forthcoming about whether Flynn was acting at the behest of the president or others.