WASHINGTON - White House national security adviser Michael Flynn has abruptly resigned, following reports of contacts he had with a Russian diplomat that may have violated federal law. The resignation of the three-star general, an early supporter of President Donald Trump's campaign, amounts to an extraordinary shake-up within the top ranks of the White House, less than a month into Trump's time in office.
Why did Flynn resign?
In late December, before the Trump administration had taken office, Flynn spoke over the phone with Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States. Flynn insisted the conversation was not substantive, but it was later revealed that he had misled senior administration officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about the discussions.
What was discussed in the call?
Flynn originally said the conversations were aimed at setting up a phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the discussions were much more substantive, according to transcripts of the calls, which were recorded by U.S. spies. Flynn had in fact discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia that were put in place by the Obama administration in response to Moscow's alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
When did Trump learn Flynn misled him?
According to news reports, the Justice Department informed the White House last month that Flynn had not been truthful about the conversation. Acting Attorney General Sally Yates expressed concerns that Flynn had opened himself up to blackmail, since the Russians could pressure him by threatening to reveal the true nature of the phone call. Trump later fired Yates after she refused to defend his controversial travel ban in court.
Was a law broken?
Flynn's phone call could be a violation of the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from conducting foreign affairs without the permission of the U.S. government. However, many view the statute as unenforceable. In over 200 years of the statute's existence, not a single person has been prosecuted under the act.
Will there be investigations?
Following the resignation, Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called for more inquiries into Flynn's dealings with Russia. Texas' John Cornyn, the Senate's second-ranking Republican, and Missouri Republican Senator Roy Blunt of the Intelligence Committee said Flynn's actions need to be investigated. Blunt said the Intelligence Committee should talk to Flynn "very soon." But Utah Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Republican who chairs the House panel that heads such investigations, has said he does not intend to look into the issue.
Both houses of Congress have already opened investigations into alleged Russian hacking that top spy chiefs say was intended to help Trump win the election.
If there is an investigation into Flynn, much will revolve around who knew what and when, and whether Flynn was directed to discuss U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador. It could also focus on why the White House continued to employ Flynn for several weeks, despite being told he had been untruthful about his communications and was possibly open to blackmail.
Why is this important?
The Flynn incident is notable because it involves a top White House security official resigning over contact with a foreign government. The incident could also revive concerns about Trump's connections to Russia and further complicate his attempts to ally U.S. foreign policy with Moscow.
In addition, there are also wider concerns about the Trump administration's handling of sensitive intelligence. These concerns were heightened after Trump and his top aides were photographed coordinating their response to North Korea's recent missile test in full view of diners at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.
Flynn's resignation could also alter dynamics within the White House, where senior officials are said to be jockeying over influence. It could also further strain Trump's relations with U.S. spy agencies, which he has repeatedly accused of politicizing intelligence in order to damage him.
How has Russia responded?
Putin's spokesman told reporters that Flynn's resignation was an "internal affair" of the U.S. and had "nothing to do" with Russia.
How has Flynn responded?
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he had "inadvertently" briefed Pence and other administration officials with "incomplete information" because of "the fast pace of events."