As I rode the metro to work this morning, an elderly gentleman holding a sign that read, `Manafort-Flynn. Who’s Next?’ boarded my car at the Judiciary Square stop. It’s a question the Trump administration may be pondering as well. Now that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has flipped former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty today to lying to the FBI, speculation is rife about whom he target next, with much of it centring on Jared Kushner, the son-in-law of the president. Thus Bloomberg’s Eli Lake reports that Kushner is being fingered as the person who ordered Flynn to create a backchannel to Russia.
For now the administration is trying to depict the day’s events as a rather humdrum affair. The argument goes something like this: the bombshell revelation is merely a damp squib. Flynn is a former Obama administration official who served for twenty-five days as national security adviser to Trump. So says Donald Trump’s lawyer Ty Cobb in a statement released this morning. But while Ty Cobb, the legendary baseball player seldom struck out, Trump’s lawyer isn’t hitting any homeruns. He’s been telling Trump that the investigation would be wrapped up by Christmas and that he has nothing to worry about. And now?
Mueller’s investigation of Trump is centering on contacts with Russia. Flynn is apparently prepared to testify that senior figures in the campaign—perhaps Kushner or even Trump himself—directed him to contact Sergei Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to America, in the hopes of warding off an Obama administration push to condemn Israeli settlements on the West Bank. The focus will be on whether there was a quid pro quo between Trump and Russia on sanctions relief. Trump himself tweeted on December 30, 2016: `Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!’
Putin may be smart but Trump is another matter. Did Trump actually order collusion? For now, the jury is out. But as Sam Tanenhaus, a former editor at the New York Times, shrewdly observes, `Donald Trump’s stupidity protects him. It makes it difficult to prove intent.’ It’s also the case that Trump himself repeatedly extolled Vladimir Putin during the election campaign and called upon Russia to release any hacked emails that it might possess from Hillary Clinton’s server. Trump has had a lifelong enthusiasm or, if you prefer, infatuation with all things Russian.
But one thing that Trump’s defenders have consistently underestimated is Mueller’s skill and tenacity. They have tried to depict the former Vietnam combat veteran as embarking upon a fishing expedition or proceeding at a dilatory pace. Now that he’s coerced Flynn into cooperating, this line of argument holds no water.
Still, Trump does have a potential out: war with North Korea and Iran. If recent press reports are accurate, he plans to install Senator Tom Cotton at the CIA and Mike Pompeo at the State Department. Both are hawks who are thirsting for war with Tehran and Pyongyang. It would be no small irony if Trump, who campaigned on retrenchment abroad, ended up embarking on fresh adventures in the Middle East and Asia. You could even call it nuclear Flynnter.