In the wake of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn's resignation in disgrace, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway is rolling out a messaging strategy that makes a devastating case against Donald Trump by stressing Flynn's continued important national security role — even as the White House knew Flynn had been compromised by his lies.
In interviews following the resignation, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway rolled out a baffling communications strategy that included repeatedly stressing the important role Flynn continued to play after the White House was informed of his misconduct.
As Shareblue reported, Trump's own reaction to the resignation was highly suspicious, and Conway's spin also walked a conspicuously fine line. While making it sound as though Flynn's "misleading" of Vice President Mike Pence was the last straw, what Conway actually said was that the situation had become "unsustainable" for Michael Flynn, not Trump:
CONWAY: Mike Flynn had resigned, he decided that the situation had become unsustainable for him here —
LAUER: But wait a second —
CONWAY: — and of course the president accepted that resignation.
LAUER: You're saying that was the straw that broke the camel's back, but the White House knew about that last month, when the Justice Department warned the White House that Mr. Flynn, or General Flynn, had not been completely honest in characterizing that conversation with the Russian ambassador. And they even went further to that say as a result of that dishonesty, he was at risk for blackmailing by the Russians.
CONWAY: Well, that's — that's one characterization. But the fact is that General Flynn continued in that position, and was in the presidential daily briefings, was part of the leader calls as recently as yesterday, was there for the prime minister's visit from Canada yesterday. And as time wore on, obviously the situation had become unsustainable and General Flynn —
LAUER: Kellyanne, that — that makes no sense. Last month, the Justice Department warned the White House that General Flynn had misled them, and that as a result, he was vulnerable to blackmail. And at that moment, he still had the complete trust of the president?
CONWAY: Matt, I'm telling you what the president has said, which is that he's accepted General Flynn's resignation, and he wishes him well, and that we're moving on. There are at least three candidates, very strong candidates, that will be considered for a permanent position here. Obviously, General Keith Kellogg is the acting National Security Advisor starting today, and the president is moving forward.
Conway reiterated Flynn's participation in his national security role several times during an interview on Good Morning America, and was also careful to cast Flynn as possibly "forgetful." Notably, she did not say what Trump did or did not know:
STEPHANOPOULOS: The White House counsel was told by Sally Yates of the Justice Department that General Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Did the White House counsel tell President Trump that?
CONWAY: I don't know the answer to that, and President Trump has asked me to join you today to say that he accepted the resignation of General Flynn, and really the key here in that resignation is very simple. It's that the vice president, Mike Pence, was misled by General Flynn, or General Flynn could not completely recall what his conversations had been with the Russian ambassador.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But, Kellyanne, the White House knew that almost three weeks ago. They knew that after the Justice Department told the White House counsel Don McGahn, almost three weeks ago, that General Flynn had not told the truth about those phone calls and was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
CONWAY: These are what are in printed reports, but the fact is that I can't reveal what the White House knew or didn't know, and who in the White House knew or didn't know. All I can tell you is that General Flynn, as the National Security Advisor to the president, continued in that role and the president also wants me to refer everyone to the comments of Charles Krauthammer last night on a different network, wherein he makes the point that it's not this contact or this incident, necessarily, it's the misleading of the vice president, or the incomplete information. It's either — it's being dishonest or forgetful, and I'd like to say that General Flynn had a 30-plus year honorable career in the military, he's one of the one of the chief intelligence officers, key intelligence officers of a generation, and we're sorry for this situation. But the president accepted his resignation and he's moving on.
What Conway is attempting to do (badly) is to imply that Trump did not know Flynn was compromised, without actually saying that. What she is actually succeeding at is proving the point that Trump compromised national security by continuing Flynn's sensitive role right up until the minute he resigned, even after reports of Flynn's misconduct became public.
Of course, it does not stop there, because Flynn's contacts with Russia predated the election, and Trump's public actions alone indicate actions in concert with Russia, including the weakening of the Republican platform toward Ukraine, the open solicitation of espionage against Hillary Clinton, and Trump's public confirmation that Putin was "smart" to delay a response to Obama's sanctions.
In fact, Conway was directly asked if Flynn was acting on orders, and gave this alarmingly careful response:
LAUER: You're starting to make me think that perhaps General Kelly was not freelancing during that call when he talked about or hinted — I'm sorry, General Flynn — that he wasn't freelancing during that call, that, in fact, he may have been making that call on behalf of the administration or the incoming administration. Would that be accurate?
CONWAY: No, it would be a mistake to conclude that. Remember, in the end, it was misleading the vice president that made the situation unsustainable.
LAUER: Which the White House knew about last month. And yet yesterday, you went on the air and said that General Flynn had the complete and full confidence of the president.
CONWAY: And General Flynn decided that he should resign last night and the president accepted that resignation.
Conway is both a practiced communications specialist and an attorney. Her choice of words here is important: She did not say that it is not true that Flynn was acting on order — she said it would be "a mistake to conclude" that, a distinction which may serve to shield Conway from making a potentially false statement on the record.
This is not the first time Conway has made a suspiciously self-insulating statement. In fact, it was right around the time that the Justice Department warned the White House about Flynn that Conway made a similarly questionable remark, and conspicuously left open the possibility that the Trump administration might interfere with the ongoing investigations:
STEPHANOPOULOS: ...intelligence agencies and the FBI are now investigating possible contacts between Trump associates and the Russians during the campaign. Will President Trump pledge to allow those investigations to go forward without any interference from anyone in the White House?
CONWAY: Well, our executive branch does not believe in interfering with what the legislative branch chooses to do. We believe in federalism. I would say that —
STEPHANOPOULOS: But these are — these are — these are in the — in the government. These are the agencies of the government of your administration, who are now investigating.
CONWAY: Well, same thing. We're not going to comment on that if they feel that they need to do that. But I will say that these media reports struck us as brand-new information. We had no idea what's going on. I was the campaign manager, contemporaneous with some of those events. And I assure you that I wasn't talking to Moscow. I was talking to people in Macomb County, Michigan, which is how the president became the president.
STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re confident nothing will come of this investigation, but you’re saying the White House will not interfere with it in any way?
For Donald Trump, herein lies the rub, because the same instinct for self-preservation that led Conway (and Pence, in another interview around that time) to insulate themselves from Trump and Flynn is what imperils this fragile cover-up. Flynn is being given a soft landing by the Trump administration, but as these investigations heat up, that instinct for self-preservation is likely to loosen Flynn's tongue.