Law & the Courts

The Cockamamie Blackmail Theory of the Flynn Case

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs after a plea hearing at U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C., December 1, 2017. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
It’s another masterpiece of implausibility from Jonathan Chait

Farewell, Logan Act violation. The new-old theory about why it was perfectly legitimate and okay and not at all vindictive for the outgoing Obama administration to vaporize Michael Flynn is that Obama’s team had this deep and abiding worry that Flynn had made President Trump vulnerable to blackmail.

Theory: “Listen, Flynn,” the Russians told the new national-security adviser, “You’d better play ball or else we’ll tell your guys that you advised us to be calm about sanctions in a phone call! That’s right, we’ll drop a dime and tell your guys all about what you said on this secret phone call they already have a tape of! Hear that, Flynn, you’re ours, jerkface, we own you!”

This is the scenario envisioned by Jonathan Chait, in his latest sweaty attempt to absolve his idol President Obama of suspicion of wrongdoing. Chait doesn’t explain why Trump would worry about Flynn’s being a tool of the Russians when Trump himself has been a Russian asset since 1987. Why, it was Chait himself who supplied this grave information to the world a couple of years ago and accompanied this conspiracy theory di tutti conspiracy theories with a madman-at-the-chalkboard illustration, which passed along such nefarious factoids as “MOSCOW: Trump visited here in 1987 and 2013.” I particularly like the ziz-zagging line that informs us that Ivanka Trump (box: “PRESIDENT’S DAUGHTER”) is directly connected to the box reading: “THE TRUMP ORGANIZATION.” Chait cracked this thing wide open and now America knows the truth about all the Trump family’s ties to the Trump Organization.

Chait now takes up his pen, or piece of chalk, to accuse others of holding crazy conspiracy theories. He thinks it’s “febrile” for my colleague David Harsanyi and me to suspect Obama might have been orchestrating all of the dirty tricks the Obama Administration played on Obama’s enemy Michael Flynn, the registered Democrat and Obama administration official turncoat who, after being fired by Obama, loudly denounced Obama’s ISIS policy, his Iran deal, and his handpicked successor Hillary Clinton. Chait proclaims that “we know” that Obama was “extremely hesitant to even appear to abuse law enforcement or intelligence for political gain.” Oh, “we know” that, do we? Three cheers for faith-based political analysis.

Never mind that the Obama-infallibility theory has been severely tested before, or that Chait’s evidence that Obama would never abuse power is to cite a couple of times Obama didn’t abuse power. In other news, O. J. Simpson can truthfully claim he didn’t murder anyone in May or July of 1994. Obama, notes Chait with admiration, once asked congressional Republicans, in the heat of the 2016 election season, to join him in making a big show of denouncing Russian efforts to aid the Republican Party in the election. Since Republicans thought $12.95 worth of Russian Facebook memes about Jesus arm-wrestling Satan probably didn’t brainwash the American electorate, they declined to participate in this public act of mass ritual suicide, so Obama backed down. This indicates to me that Obama realized his idea to launch a bipartisan effort to aid the Democratic Party was wishful thinking. It indicates to Chait that this was a president of such utmost integrity that he could obviously never be guilty of weaponizing agencies against his foes.

Putting aside the question of whether Obama would ever have anything to do with the abuses of power his administration carried out on many occasions, Chait is begging the question when it comes to whether Obama abused power in the case at hand, by participating in (or ordering) a witch hunt on Flynn. Chait wrote in December of 2017, parroting the party line of the day, that Flynn “took a big risk by speaking with the Russians, violating the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from “influenc[ing] the measures or conduct of any foreign government” or “defeat[ing] the measures of the United States.’” That Chait is dropping the Logan Act theory (unmentioned in his latest column) is an admission that he concedes that it’s an older punchline than “Take my wife, please.” It’s inconvenient for Chait that we’ve just learned that the Logan Act was what James Comey and Barack Obama discussed using on Flynn in a January 5, 2017, White House meeting during which a stunned Sally Yates, Comey’s supposed superior and deputy attorney general, was so rattled by this information she couldn’t think straight. This also goes unmentioned in Chait’s newest column.

Not only is the Logan Act a scarecrow law that would be torched by the judiciary if anyone were ever prosecuted under it (which is why no one is ever prosecuted under it), Flynn was the incoming national-security adviser, not a random dude freelancing his foreign-policy ideas. Influencing foreign governments was part of the job he had just been hired to do by the president. And the reason Team Obama looked at the Flynn–Kislyak phone call in the first place (as we learned in a New York Times story on February 14, 2017) was that the president’s team suspected the opposite of what happened in the call. Hey, guys, find out if Putin’s new lackey Flynn promised the Russians he’d drop the sanctions we imposed on them for trying to mess with our elections. That would support a theory that Trump and Putin colluded, right? Except Flynn didn’t say he’d drop sanctions. He didn’t make a deal. He didn’t say, “Thanks for helping us win the election, we hate Obama too, here’s your reward: forget the sanctions.” He just suggested Kislyak should . . . do nothing. Which left the Obama folks trying to make the absurd case that this was a violation of the Logan Act anyway. Flag on the play: you’re not allowed to tell the Russians not to provoke us.

The Logan Act being such a joke that even Chait seems embarrassed to have cited it, he is instead dusting off the theoretical-blackmail theory of why it was okay for the FBI to go after Flynn. This one comes out of the recycling bin. It was a last-ditch effort by the Obama administration to get Flynn fired by Trump after all previous attempts, including a personal plea from Obama himself to Trump himself, had failed. Yates later testified that “we” (oh? Who’s “we”?) thought it necessary to tell Trump’s White House counsel Don McGahn about the idea that maybe someday Flynn could be blackmailed by the Russians. Flynn had falsely told Mike Pence he hadn’t discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The most likely reason for this is the one Pence now believes: Flynn, who was having hundreds of conversations with foreign entities at the time in preparation for his new job, simply forgot that sanctions had come up in that conversation several weeks prior. This also happens to be what the FBI thought after it questioned Flynn. It also squares with common sense: You probably know you won’t get away with lying to the FBI about a phone call when you know the FBI already has a record of the phone call.

It will perhaps not surprise you to learn that Chait is something of a blackmail-theory aficionado; he claimed two years ago that “the odds are disconcertingly high” that Trump was being blackmailed by the Russians, by which he meant he had no evidence whatsoever that Trump was being blackmailed by the Russians. Chait hung his article on the rumored existence of a pee tape that, after three years of feverish fan-fiction speculation, still has not emerged. Meanwhile, while publicly being effusive to Vladimir Putin, Trump has been doing all sorts of things Putin hates, such as dropping out of the INF Treaty Putin liked and arming Ukraine with missiles to defend itself against Russia. If Putin wanted to take Trump out with a pee tape, he’s certainly taking his time about it. Maybe he’s waiting for Trump’s third term?

If evidence-free rumors explain strangely effusive public statements, I hereby offer the rumor that Jonathan Chait’s brain has since 1987 been hijacked by radioactive zombies from the planet Nebulon. There are disconcertingly high odds that this is the explanation for why Chait announced to the world that liberals should support a Trump nomination because “Trump is only playing a character” and his presidency “might even, possibly, do some good.”

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