Michael Flynn, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, was forced to quit on Monday following leaks, which claim that Flynn had conversations with Russian Ambassador Kislyak before the election, warning him about upcoming sanctions by the Obama Administration, and later trying to cover it up. What we don’t know is whether the Trump Administration will take a more pro or anti-Russian stance now.
Only last month, a dossier by ex-MI6 agent Christopher Steele indicated that Russia has compromising material on Trump, raising questions about how much his team knew about Russia’s involvement in the election process.
Alina Polyakova from the Atlantic Council was so kind and answered some question that arose following Flynn’s resignation.
Could you tell us please a little bit more about the background of this story, about the resignation of Michael Flynn and how serious this matter was?
It's very serious for the Trump Administration. Michael Flynn had to resign - less than a month into the new administration. Now he is the shortest serving National Security Advisor in US history. It is also very serious because the bigger issue was not so much that he had conversations with the Russian Ambassador. This could be an ethical or legal violation or could not. The bigger issue is that he mislead other White House officials - particularly Vice President Pence - about the nature and content of that conversation.
Could one say that Trump is losing the part of his team, which is pro-Putin, and who can come instead of them? Maybe it will be some classical Republicans, who are against a closer cooperation with Russia?
That is possible and certainly General Flynn had some potentially ethically questionable relationships with Russian government officials, in-between his military service and his appointment as National Security Advisor. We know particularly that he has attended dinners, hosted by RT - Russia's propaganda channel. We don't know who will replace him. General Petraeus is a name, which has come up again. He would be, of course, much more of a traditional foreign policy Republican, as you said. But there may be others in the mix: Kellog - who is now the acting National Security Advisor - moved there from his position as Chief of Staff and could potentially stay permanently as well, and he would also fit that description of being a more 'establishment', mainstream foreign policy Republican. We don't know if General Flynn's resignation will - in the long term - be a shift towards a more mainstream Russia policy in the Administration or not. A lot is going to depend on whether or not the new National Security Advisor will have the President's trust, which General Flynn did seem to have. That is the key question here.
Do you think there is a real threat, that Trump might lift the sanctions against Russia and if so, could Congress block it?
Right now, sanctions are still only extended by executive order. It is under complete control of the President to reverse the existing executive order, which is a leftover from the Obama Administration. Currently, sanctions have been extended by Obama - about a week before he left office - until March 2018, so President Trump wouldn't have to file another order to remove them. Congress is considering how to prevent and make it more difficult for the President to relieve sanctions. There are multiple bills going through Congress right now, which would codify the existing executive orders, which means that the President and the White House would have to provide justification in order to remove any sanctions. Some Republican leaders said that they think this bill can get through and that even if President Trump vetoes such a bill, they would have a veto-proof majority to override that veto. I think this battle will continue for some time to come and I don't think the sanctions will be coming off any time soon.
Flynn’s resignation could also be another sign of a power struggle going on in the White House, between the more moderate conservative wing in the Administration – among them Flynn, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and the National Security Council (NSC) in general – and the “far-right”, “anti-establishment” wing, many of whom know each other from their work for “Breitbart” – the alt-right’s news website.
This includes Stephen Bannon, former head of “Breitbart” and now White House Chief Strategist and a member of the National Security Council (NSC). His appointment to NSC was a major blow for the moderate wing. Many suspect him to use the President as his marionette. Stephen Miller – Trump’s Senior Policy Advisor – is another member of the “far-right” wing. He orchestrated the travel ban and expressed already in 2005 the idea that the cure for racism was more patriotism, which Trump controversially used in his inauguration speech. Also, Jared Kushner seems to be part of the “nationalist” more “anti-immigrant” circle, as Bannon’s influence over him seems to grow.
It looks like both groups are leaking information in order to compromise each other. Following Flynn’s resignation, “Breitbart” attacked Reince Priebus, blaming him for the chaos in the Administration. The power struggle seems to be in full swing and for now, Bannon and his right-wing circle have the upper hand.