USA First Look

Democrats want answers on Michael Flynn and Russia (+video)

What did President Trump know? When did he know it? And where does the story go from here?

In this Feb. 1, 2017, file photo, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, in Washington.
Carolyn Kaster/AP/File | Caption

Democrats are demanding a magnified investigation into communications between President Trump’s former national security adviser and a Russian ambassador before inauguration and how much the incoming administration knew about it.

The only problem is Democrats have no power to launch an investigation into Michael Flynn and the Trump White House on their own in a Republican-controlled Congress. And GOP leaders appear eager to move on after Mr. Flynn resigned late Monday night.

Flynn’s resignation from Mr. Trump’s cabinet ended months of speculation about whether the former general discussed sanctions against Russia with the country’s ambassador to the United States, a violation of an obscure federal statute that forbid Flynn, then a civilian, from interfering in diplomatic disputes, and an allegation Flynn first denied, but then walked back from. The White House and Republican leaders have said that now that Flynn has stepped down, the issue as they see it – his dishonesty – is over. But Democrats argue that the controversy is just as much about the Trump team and Moscow as it is about Flynn.

“This is larger than Flynn,” Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, chair of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters in Washington on Tuesday, according to The Hill. “The real question with respect to Flynn is: What did President Trump know, and when did he know it? Did the president order Flynn to call the Russians? Did he seriously not know that his campaign adviser was calling Russians?”

Mr. Crowley’s assertions, something reporters also brought up at a news conference later Tuesday, were flatly denied by White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

When Mr. Spicer was asked at the news briefing if the president knew Flynn might have planned to discuss sanctions with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Spicer replied: “No, absolutely not.”

"This was an act of trust – whether or not he misled the vice president was the issue and that was ultimately what led to the president asking for and accepting the resignation of General Flynn," said Spicer.

For weeks, Flynn had denied publicly and to White House officials that he had discussed sanctions with Mr. Kislyak that former President Barack Obama had imposed in December for Russia’s alleged election-related hacking. But Flynn’s assertions contradicted what intelligence knew to be true based on routine recordings of communications with foreign officials who are in the US, as The Washington Post first reported on Monday: 

After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec. 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.

Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putin’s move. The search turned up Kislyak’s communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.

From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing ­Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak.

[Sally] Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynn’s comments in the intercepted call to be “highly significant” and “potentially illegal,” according to an official familiar with her thinking. 

According to the Post report, after much deliberation, the Justice Department and intelligence community chose in January to inform the White House about its findings. White House officials, but Vice President Mike Pence in particular, were reportedly furious Flynn had told them he had not discussed sanctions on the call. Mr. Pence and others had apparently relied on Flynn’s account when the defended the cabinet member earlier this month.

Spicer said on Tuesday that the "erosion of that trust" over the circumstances surrounding Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador created "a critical mass and an unsustainable situation."

Prior to the news conference, GOP leaders made similar statements, choosing to focus on Flynn.

“You cannot have a national security advisor misleading the vice president and others,” House Speaker Paul Ryan told reporters, according to The New York Times. But Mr. Ryan and others, including House Oversight Chair Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R) of Utah, said they have no plans to investigate Flynn’s connections to Russia further. Instead, Ryan said their focus is repealing Obamacare, according to The Hill.

Republican holdouts in Congress include Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. He said he 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," said Mr. Graham.

Democratic leaders called for a bipartisan investigation into contacts between Trump aides and Moscow, during after Trump’s presidential campaign.

“While Congressional Republicans have turned a blind eye to their constitutional duty to conduct oversight on these issues, we Democrats believe that this new disclosure warrants a full classified briefing by all relevant agencies, including the Department of Justice and the FBI, as soon as possible,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in a joint statement. “We in Congress need to know who authorized his actions, permitted them and continued to let him have access to our most sensitive national security information despite knowing these risks. We need to know who else within the White House is a current and ongoing risk to our national security.”

But Democrats acknowledge they can’t launch the investigation on their own.

"We can't force them to do it, you're absolutely right," said Rep. Linda Sánchez (D) of California, vice chair of the caucus, according to The Hill. "But the people of the United States of America can. They just need to ratchet up the pressure."