Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Real Question Is "Who Told Flynn To Call Russia?"

 The media is full of questions about Michael Flynn and his negotiations with Russian officials during the presidential campaign (when it was illegal for him to do that). But Daniel Benjamin, in an article for Politico, asks the only important question -- Who sent Flynn to contact the Russians?

The following is much of that article:

Hours after national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned amid reports that he misled top officials about his pre-inauguration talks with the Russian ambassador, President Donald Trump took to Twitter to encourage everyone to move on. “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?” he tweeted out Tuesday morning.

In a sense, Trump is right: The real story is not Flynn. But it isn’t government leaks, either. No, the “real story here” is Trump himself—and the continuing mystery of his ties to Russia.

As official Washington and the press home in on the permanent disarray in the White House, whether the disgraced Flynn broke the law and who will succeed him after his three-week tenure, the key question is getting lost in the shuffle: Who told Flynn to call Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States? Because I’m convinced Flynn didn’t do it of his own accord. Flynn is a bit player in a much larger story regarding the president’s relationship with the Kremlin, and it’s this story the press needs to focus on.

There is little doubt that Trump elevated Flynn because of his loyalty and the optics of having a recently retired three-star general parroting his views, which few other generals of that rank would consider doing. But Flynn was no grand strategist. He would not have been capable of running a complex political realignment with Russia, and he was woefully ill-cast for the role of national security adviser. An army intelligence officer who had spent most of his career in the Middle East and Afghanistan, Flynn had no background in diplomacy, not to mention Asian or European affairs. And it strains credulity that someone with such limited experience was acting on his own initiative when he spoke with Kislyak on December 29, the day of the sanctions announcement. If, as reported, he called five times in a single day, then he was on a mission, and probably not of his own devising. . . .

Aside from his inexperience, there is another reason to doubt that Flynn was carrying on an unauthorized dialogue with the Russians: Unlike Trump, he has no longtime, demonstrated affection for Putin. While he was at DIA from 2013 to 2014, he had tried to build a better relationship with Russian intelligence, but that by itself tells us little. Out of uniform, he accepted a paid speaking gig in Moscow and wound up at an RT dinner seated next to Putin in December 2015, raising more than a few eyebrows. (How far along he was in his courtship with candidate Trump at that point is unclear.)

But Flynn was still talking tough on Russia until late 2015. In The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and its Allies, which he co-wrote with controversial foreign policy analyst (and, I would argue, conspiracy theorist) Michael Ledeen and which came out in mid-2016, Flynn counted Russia as one of those allies. Indeed, on the second page of the book’s introduction, he included Russia with North Korea, China, Cuba and Venezuela as the “countries … who though not religious fanatics, share their hatred of the West, particularly the United States and Israel.”. . .

This all brings us back to the question: If Flynn didn’t initiate the discussion, who did tell him to call Kislyak? More than that, what is the nature of Trump’s relationship with Putin, and did the two collude on the hacking of the election?

Virtually all the reporters covering the Flynn imbroglio have lost track of this glaring mystery, focusing exclusively on the former general’s improprieties. In doing so, they are doing the White House a gigantic favor.

Let’s review the bidding: Trump’s fondness for Putin and Russia remains at odds with the views of the entire national security establishment as well as scholarly Russia watchers. His recent rejoinder to Fox’s Bill O’Reilly, who called Putin “a killer,” that “You got a lot of killers. What, you think our country’s so innocent?” still has eyeballs rolling. CNN reports that elements of the notorious dossier assembled by former British spy Christopher Steele have been corroborated by U.S. investigators. And, to this day, we have no idea of Trump’s business dealings with Russia—a gap in public understanding that is simply staggering for a U.S. president.

It is hard to see how a rational person could dismiss this issue as unimportant, and hard, too, to imagine how anyone could view the hacking of the U.S. election with complacency. What, other than the physical safety of the American people, could be a more vital interest than the integrity of our elections? Yet with the issue buried in an FBI investigation and stuck behind the curtain of a Senate Select Intelligence Committee review, this issue has been lost from sight and may disappear entirely.

It’s time to have a true, bipartisan investigation, outside of Congress and insulated from White House pressure. The 9/11 Commission provides a good model. Getting that set up will be a lot healthier for our democracy than getting lost in the minutiae of the Flynn affair.

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