The White House on Tuesday sought to contain the damage caused by Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser, insisting he did not break the law in his conversations with Russia.
Rather than putting the matter to rest, however, White House press secretary Sean Spicer raised more questions by confirming that Trump knew for “weeks” that Flynn had misled Vice President Pence and others about his dealings with Russia before his ouster on Monday.
Spicer attempted to quiet calls for investigations into Flynn as Democrats howled for an independent probe into links between Trump’s team and Russia — including when the president first learned his national security adviser discussed sanctions with Moscow’s U.S. envoy before the inauguration.
He said Trump had fired Flynn not because of his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but because Trump felt that his trust in Flynn had “eroded.”
“There is not a legal issue but rather a trust issue,” Spicer said, who added that the circumstances created a “critical mass and an unsustainable situation.”
“The president must have complete and unwavering trust for the person in that position,” he said.
The spokesman strongly suggested a congressional probe isn’t necessary because the matter was handled after a “very thorough review” by the president and his legal team, which he said determined no laws were broken.
He said Trump “instinctively thought” that Flynn did not act illegally after he was informed of the matter and that the review “corroborated that.”
Spicer said Trump didn’t ask Flynn to speak about sanctions with the Russian diplomat.
“No, absolutely not,” he said. “No, no, no.”
While the White House insisted Flynn had broken no laws, The New York Times reported that FBI agents interviewed Flynn when he was still national security adviser in the first days of the Trump administration. If Flynn was untruthful during the interviews, it could leave him vulnerable to criminal charges.
In his final interview as national security adviser, Flynn said he “crossed no lines” in his talks with Kislyak.
“If I did, believe me, the FBI would be down my throat, my clearances would be pulled,” he told the conservative Daily Caller News Foundation. The interview was conducted before he resigned Monday, and published Tuesday.
In his conversation with Kislyak, Flynn said he briefly discussed the 35 Russian diplomats expelled by then-President Obama over the country’s election-related hacking, but denied speaking about financial sanctions against Moscow’s intelligence services.
“It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We’ll review everything,’ ” Flynn said. “I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.”
Spicer’s account added to the confusion surrounding Flynn’s sudden departure just 24 days into the Trump administration, which has been consumed by chaos and self-inflicted wounds during its first three weeks.
After acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House Counsel Don McGahn of inconsistencies in Flynn’s story on Jan. 26, Spicer said, Trump was briefed “immediately” that his national security adviser had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
“We have been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to Gen. Flynn on a general basis for a few weeks trying to ascertain the truth,” Spicer said.
That contradicted Friday’s comments by Trump aboard Air Force One, when he said he wasn’t familiar with a Washington Post report asserting Flynn misled top Trump officials.
“I don’t know about that,” Trump said when asked about the article. “I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.”
Spicer said the president’s comments strictly pertained to the Post report and that he was personally involved in the inquiry into Flynn. He said it would have been an affront to “due process” had he chosen to immediately dismiss the retired Army lieutenant general.
There were also conflicting accounts about who initiated Flynn’s exit.
Hours before Spicer spoke to reporters, senior counselor Kellyanne Conway suggested the former national security adviser offered to resign.
“Mike Flynn had decided it was best to resign,” she said on NBC’s “Today” show. “He knew he had become a lighting rod and he made that decision.”
But Spicer said it was Trump who asked for Flynn’s resignation.
NBC News reported that Pence was only informed of the Justice Department’s warning about Flynn’s phone call on Feb. 9, two weeks after Trump and other senior officials knew.
Flynn’s resignation is breathing new life into scrutiny of the Trump team’s ties to Russia.
Law enforcement and intelligence agencies are reportedly investigating financial and business ties between Russian officials and other Trump associates, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Spicer claimed Trump has been “incredibly tough on Russia,” citing his private talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on issues like Crimea.
But the president has repeatedly praised Putin and said he wants to pursue a close relationship with the country.
Trump has not commented personally on Flynn’s resignation, other than to say the news media should be focused on the leaks that ultimately led to his departure.
“The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?” he tweeted Tuesday.
The GOP-controlled Congress appears unlikely for the time being to launch a separate inquiry into Flynn.
But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellJuan Williams: Trump's 100 days wound GOP Judd Gregg: Trump gets his sea legs This week: Congress returns to government shutdown fight MORE (R-Ky.) said Tuesday it’s “highly likely” the chamber’s intelligence panel will look into the Flynn controversy as part of its broader inquiry into Russia’s election interference.
Politically, Republicans in Congress say it’s yet another example of how chaos within the White House has served as a distraction from pursuing major legislation.
Sen. John McCainJohn McCainWeek ahead: Pentagon funding in the balance as deadline looms Kasich: 'I think political parties are on their way out' Five fights for Trump’s first year MORE (R-Ariz.), a frequent Trump critic, said the constant controversy “sucks the oxygen out of the room.”
“We should be talking about replacing ObamaCare [and] tax reform,” he said at the Capitol.