Flynn resignation sparks national security questions, reveals cost of crossing Pence

Michael Flynn's resignation sparks national security questions, reveals cost of crossing Vice Pres. Pence.

Jeffrey Engel and Joshua Rovner

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On the biggest looming questions about Michael Flynn…

  • “The first big question is whether Flynn is a sacrificial lamb or the first domino. Are there deeper connections between Donald Trump’s team and Russia? Trump might believe this is what needed to happen to put the Russia thing behind him, but it could break the other direction. This certainly will not mollify congressional Democrats calling for an independent inquiry. In fact, it will probably energize them.”
  •  “The second big question is whether Trump is worries about being seen as incompetent. The frenetic events of the last month – the botched rollout of the travel ban, the flip-flopping on China, the reports about chaos in the NSC staff, and now the Flynn debacle – might make it look as if the president has lost control of his own White House. In order to build confidence, Trump may look to replace Flynn with mainstream GOP security official.”

On how serious a threat to national secrets could exist if Flynn were compromised by Russia…

  • “It would be a very serious breach if Flynn was compromised. The National Security Advisor has extraordinary access to classified information based on his role in the NSC and his relationship with the president. But it’s important to stress that we don’t know if it is true, or even what being ‘compromised’ means in this case. Much about this story remains murky. Ongoing investigations may shed light on the details later, but right now caution is in order.”

On the pros and cons of Congress launching a bipartisan investigation…

  • “The most important benefit is that the public would see it as more credible than in-house investigations. But what would happen if such an investigation reveals links between Trump’s team and Russia? On the one hand, it would cause increasing doubt in America’s institutions at a time when public faith in institutions is declining. Trump’s critics might feel vindicated, but they would also have to acknowledge that American politics had been influenced from abroad in a way anyone would find troubling. At the same time, Trump supporters would likely view this as more evidence that the system is ‘rigged’ against their champion and against their interests.”

Rovner is the John G. Tower Distinguished Chair in International Politics and National Security at SMU and director of its Security and Strategy Program (SAS@SMU)

Can Discuss:

  • national strategy and security
  • rise in far-right populism

Book published:

Joshua Rovner 




On what the Flynn saga has taught us about the Trump White House…

  • “This demonstrates that even within the new administration, which has promised to break all the rules and overturn all the chairs, there are still consequences for lying. The problem is not so much that Flynn decided to talk to a foreign leader before inauguration day, because, frankly, historically that happens and there are many examples of it happening. The problem is the cover up. Flynn put the one member of the administration who has integrity as part of his resume out to dry and made him look bad, and that’s Vice President Mike Pence.”
  • “It’s hard to think of any precedent for a more dysfunctional, mismanaged or bureaucratically embarrassing performance the first two weeks of an administration. There’s no historic precedent for it. There was the suggestion that Trump’s team didn’t care about appearances and would be unresponsive to public opinion and criticism, yet here we see they are listening somewhat.”

On Congress’ reluctance to investigate ties between team Trump and Russia…

  • “I think the fundamental point is that whenever both houses of Congress and the White House are held by the same party, there’s just very little energy for public discord, oversight or investigation. It’s not in anyone’s interest.”
  • “The bigger question is still the executive-judicial relationship, and that will play out this week because we don’t know if Trump will rewrite his executive order on travel from seven predominantly Muslim nations, fight it or capitulate. The White House made a lot of statements about not respecting the authority of the court, which is less ludicrous than it sounds. The idea of checks and balances is it’s a dynamic tension, so while I think they were wrong in their argument for the case, they were also somewhat right that courts don’t automatically have oversight. They have input, but it’s a dynamic relationship.”

Engel is director of the SMU Center for Presidential History

Books published:

  • When Life Strikes the White House: Death, Scandal, Sickness and Personal Tragedies in the Oval Office, Jeffrey A. Engel and Thomas J. Knock, eds. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017
  • Into the Desert: Reflections on the Gulf War, Jeffrey A. Engel, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012
  • Rethinking Leadership and “Whole of Government” National Security Reform, with Joseph R. Cerami. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, 2010
Jeffrey Engel


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