If anybody in the White House thought General Michael Flynn’s resignation would end the controversy about his conduct, they were wrong. The morning after Flynn finally fell on his sword after days of growing controversy over his alleged conversations with the Russian ambassador prior to Trump’s inauguration, the cable news networks were still holding onto the story for dear life. With a relish that betrayed their relief at finally landing the scalp of a Trump appointee, the president’s Democratic foes and media critics were still pressing for an investigation into Flynn’s conduct and continually posing the Nixonian question about what Trump knew and when did he know it.
The problem here isn’t that there is something unusual, let alone criminal, in an incoming National Security Advisor speaking with a foreign diplomat, as it is being represented in most accounts of Flynn’s conduct. The danger to the administration is that the discussion about Flynn resurrects the charge that Russia helped steal the election for Trump and that somehow the former general and/or others in the West Wing and/or the president himself are compromised by some association with the Vladimir Putin regime.
The notion that Trump’s Electoral College victory was the result of Russian spying is patently absurd, but this talking point has been kept alive by the president’s obvious tilt toward Moscow. Those accusations are a canard, but if Trump’s top national-security aide counseled the Russians to keep their powder dry in December when the Obama administration was enacting sanctions against them, it will justify outrage while reminding us of Trump’s puzzling soft spot for Putin. It’s also problematic because Russia is the one issue on which Trump can count on little or no support from congressional Republicans.
If Trump wants this story to go away he’s going to have to do more than complain on Twitter about the intelligence establishment taking down Flynn, even if their leaks really were illegal and proof that some of the country’s intelligence professionals were determined to take down Flynn. For one, he will need to be more candid about his administration’s contacts with the Russians. He will also have to credibly demonstrate that while his view of Moscow may be more favorable than that of most foreign-policy professionals or other Republicans, he will tolerate no conduct that compromises U.S. interests.
But if we assume that there is nothing more at the bottom of this dispute than Flynn’s freelancing and lying to Vice President Pence, this fiasco has also exposed the dysfunctional nature of the administration’s first weeks. Less than a month after settling into their offices, it appears the palace intrigue in the West Wing is already at fever pitch. But whether you want to blame Reince Priebus or Steve Bannon — and the Breitbart story slamming Priebus as an incompetent indicates that the Bannon’s supporters, at least, are already playing hardball — or even the now departed Flynn, there’s little question that Trump needs to restore order in the White House staff and ensure it is working together to further his policy aims.
If Trump is ready to draw these conclusions from a mini-scandal that forced the departure of a national-security advisor in record time, then it is the best thing that could happen to him, especially this early in his term. Flynn may have been a loyal supporter and his views on some issues, such as Iran, may have been more sensible than that of many supposedly wiser observers. But now is exactly the time when Trump should be evaluating which of his aides have the good sense to keep the administration operating with minimal controversy. The president may wish to instill fear and create chaos among his foes and the dreaded establishment he despises, but if there is chaos in the West Wing, it will make it impossible for him to govern.
So long as the differences about Russia are rooted in policy differences rather than genuine wrongdoing, the Flynn controversy will eventually fade away. But if the West Wing civil war continues in this manner the only real loser will be Trump.
The president will never entirely convince his political foes that he is not either a would-be dictator or Putin’s stooge. But if he is as smart as he thinks he is, he will treat this early setback as a warning of the dangers of a poorly managed White House and National Security staff rather than just more fodder for his complaints about being treated unfairly. Trump is going to need more addition by subtraction as competent professionals start replacing campaign aides and faithful followers. Should he fail to understand the consequences of failing to correct his ship, the fault won’t belong to Priebus or Bannon or the media but to the president.