photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
SALLY YATES. at the time, Acting Attorney General
When a house is on fire, there are often heroes . . . and sometimes vermin trying to escape the flames. Sally Yates is one of the heroes. Perhaps the only one in this sorry tale about National Security Adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn and his secret deal with the Russians -- which has now been exposed and set the White House on fire.
It's now a blazing, roaring inferno because we've just learned that President Trump has known about this for weeks and had done nothing -- wanting, in the words of Press Secretary Sean Spicer to let Gen. Flynn have his "due process." Probably not too wise a choice of words, given that "due process" is what you do when someone is charged with a crime. Now the question is: Did the president know before Acting AG Sally Yates told the White House counsel at the end of January? Was he in on it from the beginning?
Every bit of news that comes out is worse than the day before. Now we learn that the president has known and didn't think there was anything wrong with Flynn negotiating with the Russians, only that he deceived VP Pence.
Flynn's deal seems pretty clearly to have consisted of this: On December 29th, 2016, President Obama announced the expulsion of Russian diplomats and other sanctions in retaliation for the proven Russian interference in our electoral process.
On that same day, as well as the day before, there were several calls between Gen. Flynn and the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak. We know this now because our intelligence services were monitoring the ambassador's phone.
The next day, December 30th, Vladimir Putin made it known that Russia would not retaliate for the sanctions. Instead he bemoaned the effect on the children of ambassadors who will have to be moving back to Russia during Christmas holidays -- and he warmly and generously invited the children of American ambassadors in Moscow to come to the Kremlin for their Christmas celebration.
Flynn vigorously denied that the calls had anything to do with the sanctions -- even though it's unbelievable that the cold-blooded, former KGB officer Putin, whose stock in trade is tit for tat retaliation, would have responded in this way -- unless it was somehow to his advantage. So the circumstantial evidence is glaringly against Flynn's denial.
We now know that Flynn did discuss the sanctions with Kislyak because our intelligence people have been examining the recordings made of the conversations. The Washington Post broke the story, citing nine different present or former intelligence officials who had provided information about it.
They say that Flynn advised the Russians not to retaliate because things will be different after Trump is inaugurated. At that point, in just over a month Trump would be president.
So Flynn looks guilty of violating all kinds of laws and protocols and traditions of "one government at the time." It's actually illegal what he did, because he was a private citizen and had no authority to negotiate with foreign governments.
But then we ask: What did Trump know and when did he know it? Here's where Sally Yates comes in. It was revealed yesterday that in "late January" -- after the inauguration but before she was fired on January 30th -- Yates informed the White House Counselor Donald McGahn about Flynn's conversations and the content about the sanctions.
So what did McGahn do with this information? The lack of White House action might suggest that he sat on it. Or it might also suggest that nothing was done because it was not news to them. Knowing Trump now as we do, it's plausible to me that Trump conceived of this himself and ordered Flynn to call the ambassador. Or at least that he was in on the deal. Why would he not be, given that he does not think it was wrong?
And now Spicer has acknowledged that the president has known about it siince late January -- that means that McGahn did tell him about it immediately. He also insists that the president had no problem with what Flynn did in talking with the Russians; it was that he lied about it to Vice President Pence. Spicer says the problem is not one of breaking the law but of breaking trust.
Well, in truth -- our truth, even if not Trump's truth -- it is a matter of law. In fact, it has a name: Logan's Law, which forbids any private citizen from doing exactly what Flynn did -- negotiating with a foreign government. Why? Because it undermines -- as it did here -- the actions and the authority of the legitimate U.S. government at the time.
Trump respects no boundaries -- whether it's boundaries between our three branches of government or whether it's a woman's body. So he just assumed, because he had been elected president, he was already the legitimate president; and he could do what he wanted. It doesn't work that way. We have to have one government at the time.
Here's the thing. If Sally Yates had not done what she did, we the public still might not know; and the Trump administration would have gotten away with this, and would continue to try to create the imperial presidency that Trump thinks it is.
That's why Sally Yates is twice a hero -- once for defying Trump and not defending his bad immigration ban, and now for being a whistle-blower on the deal with Russia with its vast implications.
This Flynn deal is small in and of itself. In fact, it's a good thing that Russia did not retaliate. But having it exposed is a 1piece of some much larger puzzles: (1) Trump's relationship with Russia; and (2) Trump's view of boundaries in our system of checks and balances and his view of what powers he has and doesn't have.
Howard Fineman, distinguished columnist for the Huffington Post, points to the echoes of Nixon and his downfall. He says that "there is a widespread sense of a White House in deep, perhaps cataclysmic, trouble."
The present conflagration over the Flynn affair doesn't even touch the surface of the deeper problem: Our president and his senior staff seem unconcerned in the least that Russia effectively used internet hacking to influence our electoral process, ie, our very sovereignty. Do they not care? Are they under the sway of Russia? Are we to become a Russian puppet?
Or . . . are we seeing -- with heroes like Sally Yates, and the as yet unnamed intelligence sources, and some courageous journalists -- our creaky old democratic systems of checks and balances starting to function again?
PS: A late breaking story last night, reported by the New York Times, says that "phone records and intercepted calls show that members of . . . Trump's . . . campaign . . . had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials."
This means the Trump campaign was in touch with Russian intelligence during the time they were hacking emails of the DNC and the Clinton campaign.