I discussed the sudden resignation of U.S. National Security Adviser Michael Flynn with China Radio International this morning. The interview came hours after White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had breached his trust with Donald Trump by lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of conversations with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn’s call to Kislyak was intercepted by U.S. intelligence sources and a transcript was reviewed by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Here is a Q&A of my conversation, lightly edited for content and clarity:
Q: We know that Flynn resigned because of the scandal involving his talk with Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump was in office. But what law did he exactly violate?
A: He did not violate any law simply by talking to the ambassador. If he was promising a future Trump administration action in return for a certain Russian response to the Obama sanctions against Russia that had just been announced, he might have violated the Logan Act. That law, enacted in the year 1799, makes it a crime for unauthorized American citizens to negotiate with foreign governments involved in disputes with the United States, such as promising future U.S. government action.
The bigger issue is whether Flynn lied to the FBI, which is conducting a criminal investigation into Trump campaign ties to the Russian government, about this conversation. That would be a felony crime. Apparently, the acting attorney general informed Trump that Flynn may have lied to the FBI. Trump apparently kept that information from his vice president, Mike Pence, who lied to the press as a result. Trump and Flynn also lied to the press about this call — but it’s not a crime to lie to the press.
Q: Did Flynn have any other choices besides resignation?
A: Not really. According to the White House spokesman, Trump demanded his resignation. If that statement from Sean Spicer is true, then his only choice was to either resign or be fired. By resigning, Trump allowed Flynn to issue a statement explaining his point of view in the matter.
With this scandal, Flynn sets some sort of record for being forced to leave two consecutive White House administrations, first Obama and now Trump.
Q: White House spokesman Sean Spicer later said President Donald Trump knew weeks ago — at the end of January — there were problems with Michael Flynn’s Russia phone calls. Then what’s the long pause between Trump knowing the fact and Flynn’s resignation about? Why the wait?
A: This is the question that reporters — and many Republicans in Washington — want answered. The simple answer is that Trump knew Flynn lied, but the public did not know. We don’t know the backstory yet, but Trump may have thought he could get away with keeping Flynn on the job as long as the lies did not become public knowledge. Once the Washington Post published a report that Trump was told Flynn had lied (and did not tell Mike Pence or others in the administration), Flynn was gone in a day.
Q: Will there be an investigation of the phone call and everyone involved in the White House?
A: Yes, and no. Congressional Republicans say they will investigate Flynn and his ties to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee says it will conduct an investigation. The House Intelligence Committee chairman said today he will not investigate Trump’s conversations with Flynn, citing a concept called “executive privilege,” which shields a president’s discussions with aides from public disclosure.
Q: What political implications does this have on the presidency?
A: It elevates the importance of criminal investigations by the FBI and Justice Department into Russian attempts to influence the election, it removes Russia’s most vocal supporter from Trump’s inner circle and empowers Russia’s top critic in the Trump inner circle, Vice President Pence. In the U.S., it’s further evidence of chaos within the White House and reinforces the concept that White House officials regularly deceive each other and lie to the public. Whether that is true or not, the perception is becoming more widely accepted.
Q: Following Mr Flynn’s resignation, the White House announced that Keith Kellogg, who was serving as chief of staff of the National Security Council, would take over as interim national security advisor while the White House would scout for a candidate for the position. What do we know about Kellogg and how does his national security plan for the U.S. look like?
A: He is 72 years old. He is a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War. He was a top civilian official in post-war in Iraq. He was generally respected by people in both parties. He was the first retired general to endorse Trump’s campaign for the presidency when few in U.S. politics took it seriously. He has Trump’s confidence, but some mainstream Republicans believe he is not strong enough by to stand up to Trump’s most hawkish advisers, Steve Bannon and Steve Miller. They would rather have remain as a specialist in policy rather than the top administrator.
If Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a protege of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, is chosen, that is a sign of Mattis’ influence in the administration. If former CIA director David Petraeus is chosen, it is a good sign for the U.S. intelligence community. If Kellogg is chosen, it may be a sign that Trump values loyalty over everything else. The selection may tell us who’s up and who’s down inside the Trump White House.
I promise that this list of 2015 American political winners and losers — one of dozens of such exercises being published this week — will not mention Donald Trump. (After that one.)
It’s been a long, long year in U.S. politics. It seems like decades ago that John Boehner was House Speaker, Jeb Bush was GOP-nominee-presumptive, Ted Cruz was a marginalized junior senator, Joe Biden was a GOP campaign trail laugh line and Barack Obama was a terrorist-loving, Kenyan-born, Muslim jihadist. (Well, four out of five ain’t bad.)
The list of political losers this year is loooooooooong. The list of political winners is short and subject to change without notice in 2016. (Will the honeymoon end, Speaker Ryan, or will we be talking about President-elect Paul Ryan one leap year from today?)
For what it’s worth, here’s my take, starting with losers:
Nobody went from rising national star to minor-league dud faster than the in-over-his-head Wisconsin governor. He gave one good campaign speech in Iowa and was hailed as the GOP presidential frontrunner by the out-of-touch political media elite. His campaign was a free-spending disaster that was destroyed by one simple thing — a terrible candidate.
Rick Perry, the Scott Walker of 2011, was the Harold Stassen of 2015. Nobody took the former Texas governor seriously as a presidential candidate. He couldn’t get traction, even though he gave the best speech of the Republican campaign — on the sensitive subject of race — at the National Press Club and articulately warned the GOP electorate about the candidate who shall not be named.
In his view: The inmates took over the asylum on Capitol Hill, and the keeper of the keys decided to flee the funny farm. A slightly more jaundiced view: The veteran House speaker and former fire-breathing Republican revolutionary was burned out and unable to reconcile the new generation of irreconcilable nihilists and the establishment majority in his very conservative caucus. After praying with Pope Francis, he chose a quiet glass of chardonnay on the balcony instead of a brass-knuckles brawl in the men’s room.
Remember when Walter Mondale decided not to run for president back in the 1970s because he doubted he had the fire in his belly for a presidential candidate. (You don’t? Well, trust me.) I get the feeling that Jeb Bush is the Walter Mondale of 2016. He acts like he really didn’t want to run for president, but everybody — except his mother — told him it was his duty (to the nation, to the party, to the Bush family) to run. So he ran. Badly, thus far. How bad is it? The incomparable Will Ferrell returned to Saturday Night Live to reprise his famous role as George W. Bush. His big laugh line: Bet you didn’t know I was the smart son.
The Republican political establishment
The GOP establishment — that amorphous, pan-ideological political group that shares a wariness of outsiders — is accustomed to getting its way. Over the past seven decades, only two insurgents (Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan) have defeated the candidate favored by a majority of GOP “wise men” and Daddy Warbuckses. Indeed, from 1976 through 2008, there was always someone named Bush or Dole on the Republican ticket. This year, the so-called establishment candidates (Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, John Kasich, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker, Rick Perry) received less combined support than the first-term firebrand from Texas, Ted Cruz, is polling now. The purported savior of the Republican establishment may end up being Marco Rubio, a Tea Party champion who vanquished the GOP establishment in 2010 when he seized the Florida Senate nomination from a sitting Republican governor. Or Chris Christie, a.k.a. He Who Hugged Obama in 2012.
The Republican party
The GOP now has a presidential frontrunner who cannot win in the general election and could hand the House and Senate back to the Democrats in a Goldwater-style replay. (Goodbye, Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire Senate seats.) The GOP now has a second-running candidate who would be a very tough sell to general election swing voters. The “establishment” candidates who are running ahead of Hillary Clinton in general election match-ups seem to be long shots and getting longer by the week. (One of them, Marco Rubio, has been in a holiday slump and has compensated for his declining poll numbers by taking more time off of the campaign trail.)
The establishment media
The Pundit Elite told you that a certain billionaire real estate and gambling tycoon was not a serious candidate for president. The Huffington Post relegated him to the entertainment section. They said he would fade when he questioned John McCain’s patriotism. They said he would fade when he said Mexico was sending rapists across the border to violate American … sovereignty. They said he would fade when he announced a plan to prohibit Muslim visitors from entering the United States. The big “they” have been wrong, wrong, wrong. They were wrong about Rick Perry. Time Magazine once asked. “Can Anyone Stop Rick Perry in 2016?” Duh, yes. They were wrong about Scott Walker. US News declared, “Walker Launches 2016 Campaign as GOP Frontrunner.” Chris Matthews was wrong when he declared that Rand Paul would be the 2016 nominee. (“You watch. This is what I do for a living.”) And the pundits were most definitely wrong about Jeb Bush, the one-time “Mister Inevitable” of the 2016 campaign. So what were they right about? The inevitable Hillary Clinton victory? OK, that seems likely, although the first vote has still not been counted. Here’s my final warning about pundit predictions: Beware all pundits who predict the general election with absolute certainty before Labor Day 2016.
Having lit the match of the Tea Party revolution in 2009, Fox News saw the wildfire scorch the Republican Party in 2015. Populism trumped past favorite “isms” of Fox News: compassionate conservatism, neo-conservatism, Bush-Cheney-ism and O’Reilly-ism. A former Democrat who gave money to oodles of Democrats and praised both Clintons to the high heavens is now the favorite of the populist right. Rupert Murdoch despises the candidate who shall not be named. He’s shared his opinion with the world — repeatedly — through social media. But there’s seemingly nothing he or his TV network can do about it.
Dick “Darth Vader” Cheney
“I think this whole notion that somehow we can just say no more Muslims, just ban a whole religion, goes against everything we stand for and believe in. I mean, religious freedom has been a very important part of our history and where we came from. A lot of people, my ancestors got here, because they were Puritans.” This was not some lefty civil libertarian talking. This was Mister Waterboarding himself, Richard Cheney, talking to conservative radio host Hugh Hewitt. The former vice president, who embraces his “Darth Vader” image with Dickensian good cheer, thinks that the candidate who shall not be named has gone beyond the bounds of decency. But that certain candidate doesn’t care what Dick Cheney or George W. Bush or any of their neocon friends think. He says they screwed up Iraq and Afghanistan and the entirety of Southwest Asia with ill-considered invasions. When he talks like that, the billionaire tycoon sounds a lot like Bernie Sanders.
With all the big losers in 2015, I’d like to end my list with the year’s most insignificant loser. Aaron Schock. Once the youngest member of Congress, he showed off his “six-pack abs” on the cover of Men’s Health magazine. Turns out that the emperor had no clothes at all. The fourth-term congressman was snared in a series of scandals involving his accumulation of personal wealth through the aid of political donors and his alleged use of taxpayer money to fund a celebrity lifestyle. “Politics shouldn’t be a ticket to a celebrity lifestyle on the public’s dime,” Charles C.W. Cooke wrote in National Review. “For a man who has enjoyed such a short and undistinguished career, Illinois’s Representative Aaron Schock (R) has sure packed in a lot of corruption.” With no friends and no sympathy, the era of Shock and Awe ended abruptly on March 17 when he quit his day job.
And now the winners …
In 2004, when George W. Bush made same-sex marriage one of the key wedge issues in his re-election bid against Democrat John Kerry, 60 percent of Americans opposed gay marriage and just 31 percent supported it. The past decade has seem a seismic shift in public opinion. Not only did the U.S. Supreme Court legalize what is now known as “marriage equality” this year, but the public overwhelmingly supports it, 55 percent to 39 percent, according to the most recent Pew Research Center survey.
As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in his landmark majority opinion:
“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”
There have been 353 documented mass shootings in the United States this year, almost one per day. Gun and ammo sales have spiked with each of the largest mass murders. In Washington, all attempts to pass gun-control measures have been resoundingly rejected on Capitol Hill. Score two for the National Rifle Association.
Yes, I know, gasoline pump prices are down. That makes American consumers a winner but Big Oil companies a loser. But Big Oil is still having a very Merry Christmas after getting a very nice holiday gift from Congress and President Obama: an end to the four-decade-old domestic oil export ban. As recounted by my former colleague Jennifer Dlouhy, now with Bloomberg News:
Sensing they had momentum, oil industry lobbyists stepped up a social media campaign targeting possible supporters by placing ads on Facebook and elsewhere. Companies printed anti-ban messages on royalty checks. And in the end, supporters of retaining the ban were outmatched on the Hill, where at least 34 groups and companies were lobbying to allow exports compared to seven lobbying against.
“It moved quickly,” ConocoPhillips CEO Ryan Lance told Jennifer. “A lot quicker than industry thought it would.”
Megyn Kelly and Hugh Hewitt
Two conservative media personalities gained wide respect across the political spectrum by their tough but fair questioning of presidential candidates in nationally televised debates. For her professionalism, Kelly has faced sexist and misogynistic barbs from the candidate who shall not be named. Hewitt, one of the American media’s leading experts on foreign policy, asks specific and significant questions that cannot be dismissed as liberal propaganda.
Après Boehner, le déluge? Pas de tout.
Paul Ryan, the 2012 GOP VP nominee, maneuvered flawlessly into the position that Republicans from center, right and far right were all begging him to accept the job that Boehner suddenly vacated. The bizarre courtship process has given Ryan a lot of political capital, and he has used it wisely, cutting a conservative deal to keep the U.S. government operating that won the approval of a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike. It’s always hard to predict when the honeymoon might end, but Paul Ryan has led a charmed political life in 2015.
John McCain dismissed him as one of the wacko birds. His Texas colleague, John Cornyn, called him out after he accused Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of telling a “flat-out lie.” His Senate colleagues have ridiculed and repudiated him repeatedly. To most officeholders, this would be a political kiss of death. But to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, it is a kiss of life. Running for president as the sworn enemy of the “Washington Cartel,” Cruz has risen from low single digits in early polling to challenging for first place in national polls. He is a darling of right-wing radio, and he has rolled out dozens of endorsements from famous names in the conservative movement. His presidential campaign has been as disciplined as it has been cold-blooded in his attacks on President Obama and Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The Texas Tornado capped off the year by releasing a light-hearted Christmas video poking fun at himself and people who take themselves too seriously.
Well, Mitch McConnell isn’t happy that Ted Cruz might become his party’s presidential nominee. But that’s 2016. In 2015, he pretty much outmaneuvered both the Cruz wing of the Senate GOP and Harry Reid’s Democratic minority. While the Senate Majority Leader is not a particularly big fan of Barack Obama, he has proven time and again that he can work with him to cut a deal. Cruz calls him a card-carrying “cartel” member. In the olden days, he would have been called a “legislator.”
Through his grief at the loss of his son Beau, Joe Biden’s humanity shined. He embodied a word that has almost ceased to exist in American politics: “authentic.” As 2015 dawned, Republican presidential candidates regularly made Biden the butt of jokes. As the year is coming to a close, those jokes have been discarded.
If Joe Biden showed grace under pressure, most of the political world showed that America has lots to fear from fear itself. A fear of Muslim terrorists and Latino immigrants has convinced a majority of Republicans that it’s time to seal America’s borders. Presidential candidates have called for internet censorship and routine government surveillance power to peruse our private emails in search of potential terrorists. Ratings-challenged cable news networks have nurtured the nation’s paranoia with sensationalistic coverage.