Concerns over the level and extent of the potential conflicts of interest and compromising ties to Russia held by Donald Trump and his incoming administration are only becoming more urgent as Inauguration Day approaches. Trump's pick for National Security Advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, now faces questions of whether his Russian ties and communications have violated federal law.
The Trump team has now confirmed reports initiated by David Ignatius of the Washington Post and reiterated by other news organizations that Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, Trump’s selection to become his National Security Advisor, contacted the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, in late December 2016.
Flynn reportedly made several telephone calls to Kislyak on December 29, which happens to be the same day that Obama administration announced punitive measures against Russia for its interference in the U.S. elections, including the expulsion of 35 Russian "intelligence operatives."
Trump’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, admitted that exchanges by telephone and text between Flynn and Kislyak occurred. But Spicer claims that these conversations were completely benign, occurred before Obama’s announcement regarding sanctions, and that Flynn merely extended holiday best wishes to the Russian official and discussed logistics for setting up a phone call between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, when Trump enters the White House. The Russian ambassador also reportedly extended an invitation to Flynn to attend a conference in Kazakhstan at the end of January.
If such communications occurred during "normal" transitions of power between presidential administrations, even opposing administrations, they might not raise eyebrows. But this election and transition have been anything but normal.
And a troubling statement from the Russian embassy today raises further concerns:
Russian embassy on call:"The Embassy does not comment on multiple contacts, which are carried out on a daily basis with local interlocutors"
— Jim Acosta (@Acosta) January 13, 2017
The reference to Flynn as a "local interlocutor" in an official comment from the Russian embassy is very alarming, suggesting that the Trump transition's benign characterization of these contacts may not be accurate.
At best, these communications between a Trump appointee and Russian officials prior to inauguration, in the thick of swirling controversy and antagonism between Trump and the American intelligence community regarding the Trump team’s uncomfortable coziness and potential conflicts of interest regarding Russia, raises urgent qustions demanding further clarifying investigation — particularly in light of Flynn’s close ties with Russia:
He has appeared on Russia Today and received a speaking fee from the cable network, which was described in last week’s unclassified intelligence briefing on Russian hacking as “the Kremlin’s principal international propaganda outlet.
And at worst, the communications by Flynn, a private citizen without authority to speak for or on behalf of the United States, with a senior Russian official may violate federal law. The Logan Act forbids any private U.S. citizen from engaging in U.S. foreign affairs with any other government or governmental agent without permission from the U.S. government. The law states:
Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.
This section shall not abridge the right of a citizen to apply, himself or his agent, to any foreign government or the agents thereof for redress of any injury which he may have sustained from such government or any of its agents or subjects.
The Logan Act was mentioned during the presidential campaign when Trump invited Russia to hack and spy on Hillary Clinton. Flynn’s actions, in light of his history and that of his future boss, raise concerns that he might be engaged in negotiations with a foreign power as a private citizen prior to having the authority to do so, and in direct contravention of an act of the sitting Commander-in-Chief.
Unfortunately, Flynn is not required to face Congressional scrutiny or any sort of independent vetting process about this potential violation of law, or his potential conflicts of interest, before assuming the post of National Security Advisor, which was described by President George W. Bush’s National Security Advisor, Stephen J. Hadley, as "the best foreign policy job in government." According to Hadley:
You get to spend more time with the President than any other member of the President’s national security team. You are the first to see the President in the morning when the President shows up for work in the Oval Office and the last person to see the President before he or she makes any major foreign policy or national security decision. You are the person most likely to know the President’s mind on these issues. You are involved in consequential matters that span the globe and affect the world… You run the interagency process that analyzes issues, develops options, and then presents them to the President. And then you oversee the process by which the President’s decisions are implemented by the various departments and agencies of the federal government.
Flynn will have an expansive role and extensive power in shaping and implementing the foreign policy of the United States. As a result, the American people deserve further investigation into the nature and extent of his ties to Russia, and any possible breaches of his allegiances to the United States and its laws.