National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have stepped down from his post Tuesday, but concerns over the nature of the relationship between the Trump administration and Russia still remain.
Flynn’s resignation comes less than a month after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States and comes amid allegations he had discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey I. Kislyak. He’s also the third member of the Trump campaign team to be investigated by the FBI. With such strong links between team Trump and the Kremlin, Flynn’s resignation doesn’t placate concerns about the relations; it intensifies them.
“Flynn’s resignation is just the tip of the iceberg,” Vikram J. Singh, the Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, told ThinkProgress. “When the President’s campaign manager [Paul Manafort] resigned because of ties to Russia and six months later the National Security Adviser resigns because of suspicious ties to Russia, you don’t need much more to conclude there’s a smoke filled room and to see if a fire is burning somewhere.” (ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site housed at the Center for American Progress.)
Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was removed from team Trump after his shady dealings with pro-Russian figures in Ukraine drew national attention. Former Trump campaign advisers Carter Page and Roger Stone were among the three team members, along with Flynn, investigated by the FBI for their ties to Russia. And two days after Trump’s election victory in November, Sergei A. Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister claimed Russian officials were in contact with members of Trump’s “immediate entourage.”
“It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
“Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage,” Mr. Ryabkov told Russia’s Interfax news agency, at the time.
Hope Hicks, a Trump spokeswoman, denied the claim.
Flynn now follows Manafort, Page, and Stone out the door, but that’s done little to placate concerns of the Trump team’s links to the Kremlin. Recent reporting in the New York Times revealed intercepted calls that show repeated contact between Trump campaign members and Russian intelligence. Officials interviewed by the Times said Manafort was one of the campaign team members to speak to Russian intelligence but wouldn’t name the others.
When reached by the Times, Manafort denied contact.
“I have no idea what this is referring to. I have never knowingly spoken to Russian intelligence officers, and I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today,” he said. “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
The calls are allegedly different in nature from the wiretap that put Flynn in hot water. And Manafort’s quip about the nature of his interaction with Russians could be telling. Many of Trump’s circle have done business with Russia, and it wouldn’t be impossible for someone to come in contact with an official from the FSB, Russia’s principal security service, without knowing their role with the intelligence community. This potential reality means it is all the more significant that President Trump has yet to release his tax returns.
“The disclosure of Donald Trump’s tax returns might reveal if he has particular obligations to people or businesses in Russia,” Singh said. “Something sketchy is going on with [administration officials’] ties to Russia. We don’t know anything about his own business dealings because everything is opaque and the most basic levels of transparency and norms of transparency are denied and I don’t think that can stand. Over time there will be pressure because people deserve to know if their leaders are beholden to a foreign power.”
The FBI is currently investigating a dossier released to the public last month by Buzzfeed. Meanwhile, the House and Senate Intelligence Committees are now investigating Russian hacking and contacts between Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign, according to the Times. Additional probes of Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak are being obstructed by prominent Republicans.
“I just don’t think it’s useful to be doing investigation after investigation, particularly of your own party,” Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) told Fox News on Tuesday.
lol you're not *actually* supposed to say it, Rand https://t.co/nr4LTipW7l
— Vann R. Newkirk II (@fivefifths) February 15, 2017
Some observers believe it’s unlikely the ties between the Trump campaign and Russia end with Flynn.
“What seems to be the case is that Russia for quite some time has invested in Donald Trump or the people around him,” Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official now the executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based think tank, told the LA Times. “We just don’t know the truth. As long as those questions are out there, it has a corrosive effect.”
What has been revealed is that Trump knew about a Department of Justice probe into Flynn for weeks, while Vice President Mike Pence found out on Feb. 9, according to CNN, almost a month after he denied that Flynn spoke sanctions with Kislyak. Meanwhile, Trump has worked hard to deflect from stories about his team’s ties to Russia and shift focus onto the source of the leaks coming out of his administration.
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017