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Democrats demand independent probe after Flynn resignation

February 14, 2017 at 6:50 PM EDT
Michael Flynn’s short tenure as national security adviser is done, but the firestorm over his resignation has just started. John Yang and Lisa Desjardins offer a look at the fallout from both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: He served just 24 days, the shortest tenure ever for a president’s national security adviser.

Now Michael Flynn has been forced out, but the firestorm over his resignation has just begun.

John Yang reports on this day of turmoil.

JOHN YANG: President Trump knew since late last month that his Michael Flynn had misled the White House about his telephone conversation with the Russian ambassador.

SEAN SPICER, White House Press Secretary: We have been reviewing and evaluating this issue, with respect to General Flynn, on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth.

JOHN YANG: Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the warning came from acting Attorney General Sally Yates, based on an NSA phone intercept.

SEAN SPICER: The White House counsel informed the president immediately. The president asked them to conduct a review of whether there was a legal situation there. That was immediately determined that there wasn’t. That was what the president believed at the time, what he had been told, and he was proved to be correct.

The issue, pure and simple, came down to a matter of trust, and the president concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security adviser.

JOHN YANG: Flynn had denied publicly, and to vice president-elect Pence directly, that he had discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the transition. It came out last week that he had.

Today, Spicer argued Flynn didn’t break the law against private citizens conducting diplomacy.

SEAN SPICER: There is nothing that the general did that was a violation of any sort. He was well within his duties to discuss issues of common concern between the two countries. I will say it again: What this came down to is a matter of trust.

JOHN YANG: By last night, Spicer said, the president asked for Flynn’s resignation.

Today, Mr. Trump ignored shouted questions about Flynn. Instead, he tweeted: “The real story here is, why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?”

SEAN SPICER: It’s not just something that is plaguing the current situation, but it goes back to the Obama administration, the Bush administration, the Clinton administration. When we have government employees that are entrusted with this and then leak it out, that undermines our national security, frankly.

JOHN YANG: At the Capitol, House Speaker Paul Ryan agreed that Flynn had to go.

REP. PAUL RYAN, R-Wis., Speaker of the House: I think the president made the right decision to ask for his resignation. You cannot have a national security adviser misleading the vice president and others.

JOHN YANG: Ryan wouldn’t say if he thinks an investigation is needed. House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz said: “The situation has taken care of itself.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said it’s highly likely that the Senate will investigate.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-Ky., Majority Leader: The Intelligence Committee is already looking at Russian involvement in our election. And they have broad jurisdiction over the intel community writ large. And they can look at whatever they choose to.

JOHN YANG: Top Democrats demanded an independent probe.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-Md.: Do you hear the silence? This is the sound of House Republicans conducting no oversight of President Trump. Zero. That is what it sounds like when they abdicate their duty under the Constitution.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER, D-N.Y., Minority Leader: There are potential violations of law here by General Flynn and potentially others. What I am calling for is an independent investigation with executive authority to pursue potential criminal actions.

JOHN YANG: In Moscow, the Kremlin called it an internal matter for the United States. But hard-line lawmakers like Alexei Pushkov said Flynn was the victim of a witch-hunt.

Mr. Trump named retired Army Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg as his acting national security adviser. He’s served as chief of staff for the National Security Council and advised Mr. Trump during his campaign. The leading contenders for a permanent replacement are widely reported to include former Vice Admiral Robert Harward, a retired Navy SEAL, and former CIA Director and retired Army General David Petraeus. Petraeus is currently on probation for revealing classified intelligence to his mistress.

Spicer said the president did not know that Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions with the ambassador until acting Attorney General Yates contacted the White House on January 26. Spicer stressed that Flynn’s firing had nothing to do with the phone call itself — Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, John, there are so many threads to this story. Among other things, we’re learning that the FBI interviewed General Flynn very shortly after the new administration took office.

What are the questions at the White House about — how are they answering these questions about why it took so long, from then until now, for this to unfold, to come out?

JOHN YANG: What they say is that this had been reviewed for weeks and that it only was in the last night that Mr. Trump decided to ask for his resignation.

It was also last night that The Washington Post reported this contact from the acting attorney general with the White House. The interview story you mentioned is from The New York Times. They quote current and former officials, unnamed, saying that they found Mr. Flynn to be less than forthcoming in these FBI interviews immediately after the inauguration.

If officials conclude that he deliberately lied to the FBI, that could lead to a felony charge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, John, how is the White House dealing with this overall?

JOHN YANG: They are — they came out today. They made a clean breast of it. They tried to be as forthcoming as they could in the briefing.

Sean Spicer stressed over and over again this was a matter of trust, that Flynn was doing his job as preparing to be national security adviser by talking to the ambassador. They said it should be no surprise that he was talking about issues of concern to both of them, but they are hoping that they can put this to rest.

JUDY WOODRUFF: John Yang at the White House, we thank you.

And at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, our Lisa Desjardins joins us for the latest from Capitol Hill.

So, Lisa, we heard a little about this already in John’s report. But what are you picking up there? How are — especially the leadership in both parties, how are they reacting?

LISA DESJARDINS: The White House may want to put this to rest, but there’s no signs of that happening at the Capitol yet, Judy.

There are two camps, especially among Senate Republicans. That’s the place to watch. Some, like Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, say this should all be folded into an ongoing investigation already under way by the Senate Intelligence Committee. That’s over Russian hacking and Russian manipulation of the elections. We know that will include now questions about General Flynn.

But that’s only in private, Judy. Other Senate Republicans say this needs to have more light of day. They want public hearings, including a public hearing with General Flynn. That’s a divide for Senate Republicans right now.

Meanwhile, some other Republicans say the real investigation up here should be into the leaks, not into Mr. Flynn. These are all issues swirling right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Lisa, what about the Democrats?

LISA DESJARDINS: Right. The Democrats came out strong today, as John reported.

Chuck Schumer, asking for this independent investigation, his folks told me that could include the FBI investigation under way, but only if new Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuses himself. That is a critical point for Democrats. Also, at the same time, they’re asking questions about House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes.

He has generally been supportive of General Flynn, said he made a decision to resign. But he’s not investigating. Some point out that Mr. Nunes was himself on the Trump transition team. I asked him about that, asked his office about that. They said he will follow all the leads that he can.

Meanwhile, Democrats also eager to point out that another national security issue arose with Republicans in the past couple of years when they investigated Hillary Clinton, a Democrat, and they see this as somewhat hypocritical.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Lisa Desjardins, so much to follow. Thank you very much.

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