The tumultuous, short tenure of Michael Flynn, President Trump’s national security adviser, is only part of the cloud hanging over the White House.
A New York Times report claims that members of Trump’s campaign and outside associates had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” in the year before the election. Democrats are calling for additional congressional investigations.
But Mr. Trump’s immediate challenge is to put his presidency back on track, and that means quickly replacing Mr. Flynn with a seasoned professional who plays well with others, analysts say.
Only then can the Trump administration begin to fully address all the foreign policy and national security matters on its plate.
The position of national security adviser is a linchpin for foreign policy, working in close proximity to the president. Past occupants of the job, Henry Kissinger (who advised Presidents Nixon and Ford), Brent Scowcroft (who advised Presidents Ford and George H.W. Bush), and Zbigniew Brzezinski (who advised President Carter) are all giants of foreign policy thought.
For Trump, the right national security adviser could take steps toward putting flesh on the strategic judgments that were behind Trump’s campaign promises, says Peter Feaver, an expert on civil-military relations who served in President George W. Bush’s National Security Council.
“Every administration comes in saying that they’re going to make changes, and they have a raft of campaign promises they’ve made,” says Mr. Feaver, a professor of political science and public policy at Duke University in Durham, N.C. “But they recognize that they campaign with one assessment of reality, and now have to take a look at the rest of the information that’s only available once they take office.”
Flynn's potential replacement
Multiple news outlets have reported that Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a retired Navy SEAL and former deputy commander of the US Central Command, has been offered the job.
Admiral Harward also served as the director for defense and strategy issues for the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, and that could play a role in how he would shape the job.
“I think he would look especially to people he knows from his time working for the George W. Bush NSC from 2003 to 2005. No more Fox News talking heads,” writes Thomas Ricks at ForeignPolicy.com.
“Instead, I think he would try to take a Scowcroft-ian approach to trying to run the interagency policy formulation process — deliberate, rigorous, careful. Just how that will fit with the style of the Twitterer-in-Chief, I don’t know.”
A pivotal position
Always a pivotal figure, the national security adviser could be particularly important for this administration at this time.
It would be the new adviser’s job to restore order to the National Security Council, a staff of several hundred people who provide advice to the president and have reportedly been in a state of unrest since Trump took office.
Moreover, an adviser would have to establish a good working relationship with Trump’s cabinet secretaries and top White House aides.
Flynn’s activities plunged the White House into crisis. First, there were questions about Flynn’s contact with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. The concerns centered on whether the two had discussed US sanctions against Russia before Trump became president, a potential violation of a law that forbids private citizens from meddling in US foreign policy.
The Trump administration does not view Flynn’s contact with Ambassador Kislyak as illegal; Flynn was fired because Trump had lost trust in him, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday. Vice President Mike Pence was misled by Flynn on the content of his discussions with Kislyak and did not learn the truth until last week, according to Mr. Pence’s spokesman.
The issue of Flynn’s discussions with the Russian ambassador are separate from the new claims of intercepted phone contact between Trump associates and Russian intelligence officials. Those reports have added new urgency to the conclusion by American intelligence agencies last year that Russia tried to help Trump get elected.
So far, the Times reports, there is no evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Russian officials on efforts to influence the election. But investigations are ongoing.
US-Russia relations going forward
Where US-Russia relations go from here is tricky. Trump has long expressed a desire for a rapprochement after a descent into cold-war-esque iciness during the Obama years. Trump says he admires Russian President Vladimir Putin as a leader, and sees the potential for a good working relationship based on mutual interests, such as fighting Islamic terrorism and dealing with China.
But both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have presented a posture that aligns more with the Obama approach than Trump’s.
And in her first speech before the United Nations Security Council, Ambassador Nikki Haley delivered a sharp rebuke to Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine.
During the campaign, Trump had suggested he might accept the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, which used to be part of Ukraine. But on Wednesday, he both bashed Russia over Crimea, and seemed to blame President Obama for its takeover.
The tweet illustrates another challenge for Trump’s new national security adviser: how to fashion a clear policy and message under a mercurial boss who is prone to making contradictory statements – against himself and his cabinet.
On Syria, Secretary Tillerson said he thought Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would have to leave office. Trump has expressed support for leaving President Assad in place as an ally, alongside Russia, in the fight against the Islamic State.
Both Tillerson and Secretary Mattis have expressed support for NATO and the US commitment to defend members all the way to the Russian border. Trump has suggested that perhaps NATO was outdated.
Still, Mattis said he wasn’t concerned about differing opinions within the new administration. He echoed Trump’s position that debate is a good thing, and that he wanted his nominees to speak honestly.
But on the question of a rapprochement with Russia, the Trump administration’s hands seem tied until inquiries on alleged Russian meddling in the US presidential election are completed. Both houses of Congress are conducting investigations, as is the Federal Bureau of Investigation.