Why you should care
Because we need someone to help us make sense of this shakeup.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
It seems that the resignation is just the beginning. Ever since Lieutenant General Michael Flynn stepped down as national security adviser on Monday, the news, tweets and spin have come at a dizzying rate. The White House is accusing the intelligence services of deliberate leaking, intended to bring down an official. Some Democrats are hollering about treason and daring to think of impeachment.
What are the real reasons for Flynn’s resignation, and what does this shakeup portend for national security and the future of Donald Trump’s presidency? To clear our heads, we turned to senior columnist John McLaughlin, who served as acting head and deputy head of the CIA from 2000 to 2004 and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University.
Why force Flynn out now?
It appears that Flynn’s dismissal stemmed entirely from press reports saying that a) he had discussed sanctions policy with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, and b) the Justice Department in late January had told the White House, based on intelligence reports, that the conversations in some way made Flynn vulnerable to blackmail from the Russians. Inside the White House, this latter information was reportedly shared with the president and a handful of others, but not with Vice President Pence until recently, even though Pence had said publicly that Flynn’s conversations had definitely not touched on sanctions, based on what Flynn had told him.
White House commentary on why Flynn had to go is full of contradictions and shows that officials could not get a basic message coordinated on the biggest mess they’ve faced so far. Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn had to go because he had broken trust with the president by not being truthful about his discussion with the Russian ambassador. But on Wednesday, Trump said Flynn had been treated unfairly by the press and forced out by leaks from the intelligence agencies. So which is it? And what is the implication of the president’s remark — that he trusts Flynn but had to let him go because the press made him do it? Or that, whatever Flynn did, he would have kept him on if it had not been revealed?
This is the sort of thing that will keep the controversy going and further fuel suspicion about what is really going on.
What effect will Flynn’s resignation have?
We do not have good visibility into how this White House is organizing its foreign-policy choices, but all this controversy is bound to inject another element of uncertainty into the process. In a smoothly functioning White House foreign-policy machine, a predictable rhythm develops, but this takes time and constancy of leadership. The herky-jerky quality of all this will make it harder to deal simultaneously with multiple problems, particularly in crisis situations. The acting national security adviser, retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, is a solid and steady manager, but he will have his hands full.
Who are the potential successors?
Retired General Bob Harward, now with Lockheed Martin Corporation, has reportedly been offered the job and is considering it. A former Navy SEAL and the deputy commander of the military’s Central Command, Harward is a first-rate officer. I’ve interacted with him a number of times and would have high confidence in his ability to bring the calmness, substantive knowledge and collegial operating style required to do the job well.
What would make an ideal national security adviser at this point?
His success would also depend on access to and trust from the president. It would depend on relationships with others in the White House operation — and on receiving some assurance that he could do the job unimpeded by infighting and unpredictable swerves of policy based on ideology triumphing over facts. In other words, the White House would have to get its big-picture act together. One person cannot bring order to it.
Are more aggressive investigations on Russia’s role in the election imminent?
There must be aggressive and impartial investigations of this. Failing some inquiry that brings to light all the facts and deals with all the allegations, this will be a millstone dragging the administration down for all its tenure.
The best option is an independent 9/11-style commission that is recognized as nonpartisan and has subpoena power to pull in key witnesses. This should be created by the Congress with the concurrence of the White House.
How are leaders in other key countries likely reacting?
Just as we have analysts following various countries, they in turn have a stable of American analysts. They must be having a field day. The message to their governments is probably that there is what looks like chaos in the capital of the country that is supposed to be the global leader. This despite the fact that Trump has made progress in some areas, such as calming Asian allies by reaffirming the One China policy, reassuring the Japanese prime minister of America alliance loyalty and patching up tattered relations with Israel. Still, many will worry about the stability and constancy of American policy until they see greater consistency across the board.
What do you make of the North Korea missile test?
North Korea has a lot of missiles, and the medium-range one it tested did not reflect substantial progress toward its ultimate goal of an intercontinental ballistic missile armed with nuclear weapons. The timing was an opportunistic attempt to rattle Trump during his meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Abe. They did not succeed — largely because the test was not all that different from those the North has conducted almost routinely over the last year or so.
If you were briefing the president, what would you be telling or highlighting for him?
The list could be long, and different things demand priority every day. North Korea deserves a continuous focus because at some point in his first term, the Koreans are likely to cross the line that still separates them from an intercontinental missile capability. It’s hard to know where Trump stands on Russia, but it’s important for him to understand that its invasion of Ukraine challenges a key aspect of the global order that the U.S. has worked hard to establish — the sanctity of borders. Similarly, some of China’s activity in Asia is challenging widely accepted rules on the freedom of the seas and of the air. And running through everything is the cyber threat that the Russian hacking of our elections represents. The basic foreign-policy question that an American president must have uppermost in mind right now is what kind of leadership role the U.S. will play in the world.
Is there precedent for this rift between the White House and intelligence services?
There is no precedent for this. And it is frankly hard to know what is really going on. What we do know is that the president continues to say disparaging things about the intelligence agencies. I do not think they are feuding with him; they are just doing their jobs. It may be that what they produce runs against the grain of his beliefs and is therefore displeasing to him — but we don’t really know that. Again Wednesday, he accused them of “illegally” leaking — but we don’t know that the leaks came from intelligence services either. Indeed, most of the press stories refer merely to “officials” — who could come from anywhere, including from inside the White House. In my personal experience, it is seldom the intelligence agencies that initiate leaks of their material. It is usually someone else with access to that material who sees some gain in making it public.
Confusion over all of this is another reason to sort it out in an independent commission with subpoena power.
What does it portend for the next four years?
I keep thinking that this will have to clear up eventually, probably when a real crisis shows the president how important intelligence can be to him. I’m thinking of my favorite inscription by a president on a photo of himself that hangs in the hallway at the CIA. It’s by Harry Truman and all he wrote was, “To the CIA: A necessity to the president of the United States — from one who knows.” Sooner or later, President Trump will know the same thing.