Michael Flynn resigned late last night. The way this played out should quiet some of the concerns commonly voiced about the Trump presidency, and what could/should occur under it into the future. These concerns fall logically into two categories, both those specifically related to Flynn, and those concerning the management of the Trump White House.
Those Specifically Related to Flynn:
- Torture. Trump was clearly pro-waterboarding during the campaign, although he stated after the confirmation of Mattis (who opposes the practice) that he would defer to the experts in this matter. Flynn was the other “pro-torture” individual in the White House; with his exit, it is much less likely that such practices will occur under a Trump watch.
- Islam. Reasonable people understand that there is a rather large difference between “Islamic Terrorists” and “All of Islam”. Trump seems to understand this, although his tendency to use ambiguous phraseology has left him open to criticism that he did NOT, in fact, understand the difference. Flynn was clearly in the “All of Islam” side of the debate, and with his departure, the chances that the Trump administration engages in policies that directly target Islam, rather than Islamic terrorists, drops significantly.
- Conflicts of Interest. After leaving the military, Flynn started a company which, for all intents and purposes, lobbied for the interests of foreign nations. This made him an odd choice for his job, in that Trump has also issued guidelines which prohibit Administration officials from working for lobbyist firms after their tenure. If conflict of interests are a risk, and international conflicts of interest even more so, Flynn was a problem waiting to happen. Sooner or later (and it appears “sooner” clearly won out) he was going to be accused to doing something that benefited a former client. With Flynn’s (relatively painless) departure, we are spared a more painful incident in the future.
Management of the Trump White House
The President’s business experience is one where he managed his interests as a sole proprietor. Thus, questions on how he would behave in a role where he is required to depend upon and manage multiple actors and competing interests were (and still are) legitimate. Flynn is just one datapoint.
In the Flynn situation, things moved quickly once the Washington Post published their article on Flynn’s Russian communications, even though the New York Times today reports that the content of the communications was ambiguous enough that the White House could have chosen to circle wagons and defend:
But the conversation, according to officials who saw the transcript of the wiretap, also included a discussion about sanctions imposed on Russia after intelligence agencies determined that President Vladimir V. Putin’s government tried to interfere with the 2016 election on Mr. Trump’s behalf. Still, current and former administration officials familiar with the call said the transcript was ambiguous enough that Mr. Trump could have justified either firing or retaining Mr. Flynn.
The matter, of course, was complicated by the perception of the Vice President that he had been lied to, and this was not the first time he had been embarrassed by Flynn. From the New York Times:
The slight was compounded by an episode late last year when Mr. Pence went on television to deny that Mr. Flynn’s son, who had posted conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton on social media, had been given a security clearance by the transition team. The younger Mr. Flynn had, indeed, been given such a clearance, even though his father had told Mr. Pence’s team that he had not.
When such matters arise in a President’ cabinet, the most common reaction, historically, as been to downplay the allegations, hoping that other matters will cause the public to lose interest. This choice is due to the traditional political calculus is that the embarrassment of a controversial resignation is to be avoided at all costs. However, it is rarely successful, and generally leads to the controversy worsening rather than abating; even worse, the President ends up expending political capital and gets nothing in return.
It appears that the Trump White House is not going to be prone to those sorts of mistakes. They are exhibiting a (a) has a short fuse for anyone who is not fully a “team player”, and (b) would rather cut bait and move on quickly, even if that grants a talking point to the political opposition.
I don’t know if that’s good politics, but it’s good management.