President Trump forced Michael Flynn to resign as national security adviser because of broken trust, not broken laws, the White House said Tuesday, trying to clean up the mess after the first major shake-up of the administration.
The explanations, however, failed to quell calls from both sides of the aisle to expand the Senate probe into Russian email hacks during the presidential campaign to Mr. Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials, including possibly calling him in to testify.
Questions also persisted about why it took Mr. Trump weeks to oust Mr. Flynn after learning the retired Army general had misled the vice president and other administration officials about his phone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions against Moscow.
“The president got to the point where Gen. Flynn’s relationship — misleading the vice president and others or the possibility that he had forgotten critical details of this important conversation — had created a critical mass and an unsustainable situation,” said White House press secretary Sean Spicier. “That’s why the president decided to ask for his resignation and he got it.”
Mr. Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency and early supporter of Mr. Trump, resigned Monday night after weeks of turmoil surrounding his calls to Mr. Kislyak during the transition. After telling Vice President Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia during the calls, reports surfaced that he did.
The transcripts of the calls, which were intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies, remained classified and therefore continue to fuel speculation about what was said. They also raise questions about whether holdovers from President Obama’s administration used classified information to target Mr. Flynn, who has been critical of Mr. Obama’s handling of Syria, Iran and other hot spots around the globe.
The president has been dogged by allegations of being in league with or somehow compromised by the former Cold War foe since the campaign, when U.S. intelligence agents determined that Russian email hacks were aimed at hurting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and therefore benefited Mr. Trump.
On Tuesday night, CNN and The New York Times both reported, citing current and former officials, that multiple Trump campaign aides and surrogates had frequent, repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials. The sources based their claims on intercepted phone calls and phone records.
CNN reported that both Mr. Trump and Mr. Obama were briefed on the contacts during the transition period.
However, the reports did not indicate what was said in the conversations, including whether they touched on the U.S. election or the Russian attempts to influence it.
No Trump officials in question were named besides Paul Manafort, who left the Trump campaign after reports of his business dealings in Russia and Ukraine. He told The New York Times that he never knowingly talked with Kremlin spies and “it’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.’”
The downfall of Mr. Flynn already guaranteed that those allegations would not go away anytime soon.
“Gen. Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser is not the end of this story. I fear it is only the beginning,” said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat. “Serious questions remain unanswered about whether the president knew of Flynn’s conversations with the Russians and about Vladimir Putin’s relationship with other individuals close to the president.”
Top Republican lawmakers, including Senate Assistant Majority Leader John Cornyn of Texas, voiced support for expanding the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence probe of Russian email hacking to include Mr. Flynn.
Sen. Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican and a member of the committee, said the Flynn-Russia affair warranted investigation and that he wanted to hear personally from Mr. Flynn.
Others called for Mr. Flynn to testify before the committee.
Capitol Hill Democrats have called for a select committee to investigate Russian attempts to influence the election and alleged ties to the Trump campaign, but Republican leaders have resisted.
Asked whether the White House would cooperate with a congressional probe, spokesman Sean Spicer said the administration would comply with the law. The law, however, grants the White House broad latitude in withholding information from the public and declining to make officials available to testify before Congress.
Mr. Trump was quick to point out that the information about Mr. Flynn’s intercepted conversations with the Russian ambassador reached the news media as fast as it reached him.
“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?” the president tweeted Monday morning.
Mr. Spicer hammered home the point at the daily press briefing. “That’s a real concern for this president,” he said. “When we have government employees that are entrusted with this, and then leak it out, that undermines our national security.”
Paul R. Pillar, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, agreed.
An individual leaker has substituted his or her own conclusions about what is best for national security, “so we as recipients of information in a leak are at the mercy of whatever are the particular grievances of this person,” Mr. Pillar said.
“At a minimum, it loosens the overall discipline of protecting national security information, and that’s bad,” said Mr. Pillar, who retired from the U.S. intelligence community in 2005 after a 28-year career.
Glenn Carle, who spent 23 years working in clandestine services of the Central Intelligence Agency, does not see the leaks as problematic.
“The leaks are not harming our national security. The leaks, which concern possible acts of treason, are in fact defending the Constitution and national security,” said Mr. Carle, noting that leaks to this degree are likely motivated by a deep concern about actions of the administration by career intelligence officers.
He called the scenario encountered by the Justice Department, FBI and CIA ahead of Inauguration Day — in which top intelligence agencies had to decide whether to brief the president-elect on the intelligence gathered on Mr. Flynn — an “unprecedented situation.”
“In this circumstance, when you have a president who appears to have colluded with a hostile foreign power, that raises existential questions for a civil service officer,” Mr. Carle said. “It’s a big, big deal.”
The Kremlin on Tuesday played down Mr. Flynn’s resignation, and veteran Kremlin watchers say Russia already had changed its focus from Mr. Flynn to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson as it looks to improve the nations’ strained ties.
“This infatuation with Trump in Russia is over, and Flynn as a person who has contributed to this infatuation stopped being perceived as a figure who can have a real impact on the U.S. foreign policy,” Alexei Makarkin, at the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, told The Associated Press.
In response to earlier leaks about the phone calls, Mr. Pence went on TV on Jan. 13 and defended Mr. Flynn based on his erroneous assurances that he didn’t discuss U.S. sanctions with the Russians.
Mr. Spicer stressed that the White House counsel concluded that Mr. Flynn had not done anything inappropriate or illegal by reaching out to Russian counterparts during the transition.
“When the president heard the information from the White House counsel, he originally thought that Gen. Flynn had done nothing wrong and the White House counsel confirmed that,” said Mr. Spicer. “Plain and simple, it came down to a matter of trust.”
“He must have complete and unwavering trust for someone in that position,” he said.
The president learned that Mr. Flynn had misled the vice president and others about the calls Jan. 26 when then-acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates informed White House Counsel Don McGahn.
After that, it took Mr. Trump 17 days to decide that Mr. Flynn must go.
The immediate concern was whether the calls violated the law, such as an obscure Logan Act that prohibits U.S. citizens from meddling in diplomatic disputes with foreign governments.
But as weeks passed, Mr. Spicer said, the president’s trust in Mr. Flynn eroded to the point where he could no longer continue in the post. He said the president made the decision to ask for the resignation and acted decisively.
“The president, as he does in all matters, ultimately decides that when he is ready to make a decision, he executes,” said Mr. Spicer.
⦁ Seth McLaughlin and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.