President Donald Trump appointed Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as his new national security adviser on Monday, a week after Michael Flynn resigned from the post following revelations that he misled the vice president over multiple phone calls with Russian officials prior to Trump’s inauguration. While many in Washington are applauding Trump’s swift pick of a widely respected military strategist, that doesn’t mean Trump will be able to put his office’s controversial ties with Russia behind.
Some now assume that Flynn’s forced departure over his supposed discussions of the future of Russian sanctions as a private citizen and his potential violation of the Logan Act, bring an end to the debates surrounding Russia, its interference in our election, and this administration’s links to that country. But several unanswered questions remain and in some ways, Flynn’s departure has only increased interest in the story. The Russia story, therefore, isn’t going away. Instead, it is likely to continue to haunt the administration for three reasons.
First, the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s resignation are still unclear. If President Trump knew about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador and the liabilities those calls were creating for the administration, why did the president sit on that information for so long before acting? Perhaps more importantly, why did Flynn make those calls in the first place? Was he acting on behalf of the president? Or did he simply engage with the ambassador because he assumed that’s what Donald Trump wanted him to do at the time? And finally, why was Vice President Mike Pence left in the dark for so long after the president spoke with the FBI about the calls? Those questions can only be answered if the requests from Democratic members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee for Flynn to testify under oath are granted.
Second, in recent weeks, Congress – both members and staff – have become increasingly interested in Russia’s actions at home and abroad. The reasons behind this uptick in Russia related hearings and briefings vary by member. Some remain deeply worried about what Russia did in the U.S. election last fall and want to ensure the United States prevents that from happening again. Others are curious whether the president will cut some sort of “grand bargain” with Russia and whether a deal that might trade sanctions for more Russian cooperation in Syria would be wise. (The short answer is no.) Still others are feeling the pressure to understand what has been driving President Trump’s oddly favorable view of Vladimir Putin. Just two weeks ago, Trump placed Russia and the United States on the same moral plane in an interview with Bill O’Reilly. When O’Reilly said “Putin’s a killer,” Trump responded with, “What do you think—our country’s so innocent?” Comments like that make members of Congress on both sides of the aisle cringe and leave them no choice but to challenge some of Trump’s very favorable statements on Russia.
Third, last week The New York Times reported that “senior” Trump aides had repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. Although the nature of those contacts remains unknown, reports of this nature, alongside the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia subversively intervened in the U.S. election, make it virtually impossible for Congress to avoid asking more questions. The two most important questions here are – did anyone working on Trump’s campaign knowingly assist the Russians as they were interfering in the U.S. presidential election and are there any existing links between the Russian government and the Trump administration that could undermine U.S. interests? U.S. Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina has said his committee will investigate the election hacking. Some senators, such as ohn McCain and Lindsey Graham favor an even broader investigation. The FBI and the Justice Department are also conducting their own investigations.
While it seems all too clear that pressure from Congress, the American public, and the press will prevent Russia from fading from the headlines, what we don’t know is how this story ends. Will Congress eventually establish a bipartisan commission separate from the ongoing investigations to get to the bottom of what Russia did during the U.S. election? Will more, previously unreported news about the President’s personal ties or his staff’s ties to Russia break?
All that we do know is that this story is going to plague the administration for some time and the already toxic relationship between the White House and the intelligence community is going to deteriorate even further. Given the stakes, though, and Russia’s increasingly hostile behavior towards the United States, its allies, and Russia’s neighbors, getting to the bottom of this story is, without question, in our collective national interest.
Julianne “Julie” Smith is a senior fellow and director of the strategy and statecraft program at the Center for a New American Security.