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National Security Council in turmoil amid Flynn departure

February 14, 2017 at 6:40 PM EDT
What’s happening in the White House in the midst of Michael Flynn’s resignation as national security adviser, and what are the real-world consequences of that upheaval? Judy Woodruff speaks with Greg Miller of The Washington Post and The New York Times’ Michael Gordon.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, for what we know about what is happening inside the White House at this tumultuous moment, and the real-world effect of this upheaval, we turn to two veteran national security reporters.

Greg Miller writes for The Washington Post. And Michael Gordon of The New York Times, he wrote the story about Russian missile moves that we reported earlier.

Welcome, both of you, welcome you back to the program.

Let me start with you, Greg Miller.

We have gotten, I think, two different versions over the last 24 hours of what happened to General Flynn since yesterday, was that he was asked to resign. Today, the White House seems to be saying he was forced to resign. What’s the truth?

GREG MILLER, National Security Correspondent, The Washington Post: I think there is really not much doubt that he was forced and that a number of things forced the White House to make this decision.

They might not have wanted to do it at that particular moment, but the cumulative total of the headlines day after day on Flynn and what was happening was, I think, too much.

And I think it really came down to two basic things, one, what he did, and just what he discussed with the Russian ambassador, but, more significantly, how he misled senior officials at the White House, including Vice President Pence, about the nature of those communications.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Greg Miller, staying with you, what’s your understanding of why this was allowed to spiral on, this was allowed to run out as long as it did, three weeks?

That from the time General Flynn came into the White House, there were questions about these conversations with the Russian ambassador, and here we are over three weeks later. Why did it take so long?

GREG MILLER: I mean, we’re still waiting for really clear answers to these questions, but the questions are really piling up at this point.

I mean, we are reporting and others are reporting this afternoon that Flynn was interviewed by the FBI within his initial days of his arrival as national security adviser in the Trump administration, which means that the FBI was already looking at this and putting him — sworn questions to him about his communications with Kislyak.

And then we know, as we reported last night at The Washington Post, that the acting attorney general warned the White House weeks ago that Flynn had misled Pence and others. And it took until yesterday for the White House to even appear to acknowledge this discrepancy, let alone attempt to clear any of it up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Michael Gordon, as somebody who watches the entire foreign policy establishment in this city, what effect is this having?

MICHAEL GORDON, Diplomatic Correspondent, The New York Times: Well, it doesn’t help when your American administration is in a state of turmoil.

You know, today, the head of the Special Operations Command, General Tony Thomas, said something that was really incredible. He said that — in a conference, he said that the — our own government, our American government, was in a state of turmoil, and this was very disconcerting for the military, because they needed stability at home in order to deal with wars abroad.

So, when your own generals are talking about it, you know it’s having an effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Gordon, as we said, you reported today about the Russians deploying a missile, violating a treaty. The Obama administration had protested, as we know, over a number of years. What does that represent?

MICHAEL GORDON: This is a very big deal.

This is — there was a treaty, the INF Treaty, signed by President Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, which led to the elimination of all intermediate-range American and Russian missiles based on land. And it really sealed the end of the Cold War.

And what the Russians have now done is developed a missile that — and deployed it. And this is — really flies in the face of the agreement. This is not a technical violation. This is a violation at the heart of the agreement. Right now, it has more political significance than military significance.

But if they continue deploying these systems, it’s something that the NATO alliance and General — Secretary Mattis is going to be there tomorrow — is really going to have to address.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so, Greg Miller, if the National Security Council were functioning under normal circumstances, wouldn’t there have been some reaction to this, some anticipation of it?

GREG MILLER: I mean, that’s the job of the National Security Council is to try to be a disciplined clearinghouse, gathering the views from across multiple agencies, teeing up decisions that make sense for the president.

I was told that all members of the National Security Council were summoned for an all-hands meeting at 10:00 a.m. this morning, and that it went for five minutes and it was basically a plea for people to stay in place and not head for the exits yet.

So, it’s just a state of acute turmoil right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that compare, Greg Miller, to anything you have seen before?

GREG MILLER: Oh, none whatsoever.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gordon, what about you?

I mean, when you look at the picture of what’s going on at the National Security Council, the fact that — and I think you were telling us today, reminding us there is only one person who has been confirmed at the State Department, Secretary Tillerson.

What is the state of American national security right now, decision-making?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, you can’t make a decision about how to approach Russia if you have no deputy secretary of state, you have no assistant secretary for European affairs, you have no undersecretary of defense for policy, and you have no permanent national security adviser.

This is an important issue, and they simply don’t have the people in place to begin to make intelligent decisions about what policy course they want to steer.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Greg Miller, I think the White House would say, well, we have appointed someone as an interim. We are working hard to name a permanent replacement as national security adviser.

Why aren’t they correct to say, well, this is just a momentary blip, we’re going to get on with business?

GREG MILLER: I mean, it’s a — if this were in isolation, perhaps you could accept that this were an ordinary blip. But the other problems that Michael Gordon just outlined, in addition to just sort of the — just the appearance of chaos that you see, the images from the Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida this weekend, where the Trump officials and Trump himself appeared to be reacting to North Korean missile launch with — by pulling out their cell phones, in view of other guests at the restaurant.

I mean, across the board, it just looks like a lack of discipline and organization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, Michael Gordon, so, what are you keeping your eye on right now?

MICHAEL GORDON: Well, I think Secretary Mattis is going to be in Brussels tomorrow with the NATO allies. He’s clearly got to deal with this missile threat, because this is a — strikes at the heart of an agreement that is very much valued, not by the — not only by the NATO allies, but by our Asian allies.

And so I think, tomorrow, we should at least see at least a glimmer of an American response on this. So, I think that’s the near-term thing to keep an eye on. The longer-term thing is that Mr. Flynn was — seemed to be cozying up to Putin. And now that he’s gone, that might affect our broader policy toward Russia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Michael Gordon, Greg Miller, thank you both.

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