Conway: Flynn resigned because he'd become 'a lightning rod'
WASHINGTON -- The storm over national security adviser Michael Flynn's contacts with Russia made his situation "unsustainable," prompting Flynn to resign less than a month into the new Trump administration, a top White House official said Tuesday.
Flynn's ouster appeared to be driven more by the idea that he had misled U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials than by the content of his discussions with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. Still, the matter deepened questions about President Donald Trump's friendly posture toward Russia.
White House counsellor Kellyanne Conway told NBC's "Today" show that Flynn "knew he'd become a lightning rod" and made the decision to resign. Conway's comments came one day after she said the president had "full confidence" in Flynn.
Flynn's resignation -- which one White House official said was offered at the request of the president -- came after reports that the Justice Department had alerted the White House weeks ago that there were contradictions between Trump officials' public accounting of the Russia contacts and what intelligence officials knew to be true based on routine recordings of communications with foreign officials who are in the U.S.
The revelations were another destabilizing blow to an administration that has already suffered a major legal defeat on immigration, botched the implementation of a signature policy and stumbled through a string of embarrassing public relations missteps.
White House officials haven't said when Trump was told of the Justice Department warning or why Flynn had been allowed to stay on the job with access to a full range of intelligence materials.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a longtime Russia critic, said Congress needs to know what Flynn discussed with the ambassador and why.
"The idea that he did this on his own without any direction is a good question to ask," Graham added.
Pence and others, apparently relying on information from Flynn, had said the national security adviser did not discuss U.S. economic sanctions against Russia with the Russian envoy during the American presidential transition. Flynn later told officials the sanctions may have been discussed, the latest change in his account of his pre-inauguration discussions with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Such conversations would breach diplomatic protocol and possibly violate the Logan Act, a law aimed at keeping private citizens from conducting U.S. diplomacy. The Justice Department had warned the White House late last month that Flynn could be at risk for blackmail because of contradictions between his public depictions of the calls and what intelligence officials.
Asked whether the president had been aware that Flynn might have planned to discuss sanctions with the Russian envoy, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said, "No, absolutely not."
House Speaker Paul Ryan said Trump made the right decision in asking Flynn to step down.
"You cannot have the national security adviser misleading the vice-president and others," Ryan said.
Trump, who has been conspicuously quiet about Flynn's standing for several days, took to Twitter Tuesday morning and said the "real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?" He ignored questions about Flynn from reporters during an education event at the White House Tuesday morning.
Trump named retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg as the acting national security adviser. Kellogg had previously been appointed the National Security Council chief of staff and advised Trump during the campaign. Trump is also considering former CIA Director David Petraeus and Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a U.S. Navy SEAL, for the post, according to a senior administration official.
Kellogg convened a brief meeting of the National Security Council staff Tuesday morning and urged them to continue with business as usual. Staffers have been told that Flynn's deputy, K.T. McFarland, a former Fox News analyst, is expected to stay at the White House.
A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Kislyak on the day the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, as well as at other times during the transition.
The officials and two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the Justice Department warnings on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.
The Washington Post was the first to report the communication between former acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, and the Trump White House. The Post also first reported last week that Flynn had indeed spoken about sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Trump never voiced public support for Flynn after that initial report but continued to keep his national security adviser close. Flynn was part of Trump's daily briefing Monday and sat in on his calls with foreign leaders, as well as his discussions with visiting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
The Kremlin had confirmed that Flynn was in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions. On Tuesday, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defence of Flynn.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, said in a post on Facebook that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is "not just paranoia but something even worse." Kosachev also expressed frustration at the Trump administration:
"Either Trump hasn't found the necessary independence and he's been driven into a corner... or russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom," he said.
Kosachev's counterpart at the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, Alexei Pushkov, tweeted shortly after the announcement that "it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia."
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Flynn's resignation "does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians." He said the White House has yet to be forthcoming about whether Flynn was acting at the behest of the president or others.
Associated Press writers Vivian Salama, Erica Werner, Catherine Lucey and Matthew Daly in Washington and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report