Trump Should Beware Of The Flynn Affair Becoming The Plame Game

Trump Should Beware Of The Flynn Affair Becoming The Plame Game

The resignation of former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn bears more than a few disturbing similarities to a scandal that brought the Bush administration to its knees.
Michael Ginsberg

Ever since the inauguration, Democrats have been searching high and low for ways to discredit and undermine the Trump administration. Some Democrats, such as Maxine Waters, have openly admitted they want to impeach President Trump and are on alert for any possible grounds.

Dan Rather has gone on record comparing the Mike Flynn affair to Watergate, and pundit Sally Kohn tweeted a step-by-step recipe for removing President Trump and replacing him with Hillary Clinton. Not a day goes by that the media doesn’t seize upon some alleged Trump gaffe, misstep, or scandal or, when all else fails, supposed dysfunction in the Trump White House.

It is obvious that Democrats and the media are intent on strangling the Trump administration in its crib. They seek every weapon to accomplish this goal. They slow-roll the confirmation of Trump’s cabinet. They play up the argument that Trump lost the popular vote. They regularly attack him and his advisers as a racist and anti-Semitic. So far, despite the exhausting, daily swirl of hyperbolic reporting, the Trump administration has more or less stayed on course in implementing its policies.

However, this does not mean danger does not lurk. The scandal and resignation of former National Security Adviser Flynn bears more than a few disturbing similarities to a scandal that, a decade ago, brought the Bush administration to its knees. I am referring, of course, to the Valerie Plame affair.

You Remember the Valerie Plame Affair

The Plame affair started innocently enough. The Central Intelligence Agency sent a former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, to Africa to investigate the possibility that Saddam Hussein sought yellowcake uranium to support an illicit nuclear program. According to Wilson, the CIA greenlighted the trip to answer a question Vice President Dick Cheney’s office had asked the CIA regarding Iraqi efforts to obtain uranium in Africa.

Wilson reported his findings to the government. He also took to the pages of The New York Times to discuss “What I Didn’t Find in Africa,” detailing how he had concluded that Hussein had not sought yellowcake from Africa. He also claimed intelligence had been “twisted” to “exaggerate” the threat of an Iraqi nuclear weapons program.

The Bush administration, unaware of who Wilson was or why the government had sent an administration critic like him on this mission, endeavored to find out. Reporter Bob Novak was also curious, and he learned that Wilson’s wife, Valerie Plame, worked at the CIA and had recommended her husband for the mission. Novak duly published his findings. Not long after, all hell broke loose.

Wild accusations immediately overtook the Bush administration. Wilson accused the administration of outing his wife as a CIA officer to retaliate for his article. Many people thought a White House staffer leaked Plame’s name to Novak. Wilson himself blamed Karl Rove, saying he wanted to see Rove “frog-marched” out of the White House “in handcuffs.”

MSNBC gleefully jumped onto the story—it was a staple of Keith Olbermann’s “Countdown” for years. Others suggested the Bush administration had violated the Espionage Act or other laws protecting CIA officers. Antiwar Democrats made Plame and Wilson antiwar heroes and martyrs.

Finally, the Bush administration buckled to external pressure and named a special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, to investigate who leaked Plame’s name. Fitzgerald learned that Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage had leaked Plame’s name to Novak. Despite this mystery, he continued investigating. Eventually, he brought one man to trial: Cheney’s chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, for perjury.

The Trial Was Really Political Sabotage

Although the trial was for perjury, its purpose for the antiwar left was to put the Iraq War and entire Bush administration on trial. The trial intended to make the war and administration illegitimate and, essentially, wreck its ability to function.

That it did. The administration and press was consumed by Fitzgerald’s investigation. In fact, it is now known that Libby had argued for a surge much earlier in the Iraq War but was unable to push his position strongly because the Plame affair so badly consumed him. Libby was forced to resign as Cheney’s chief of staff in October 2005, and only at the end of 2006—after another year of bloodshed—did the United States implement the surge strategy Libby had advocated.

A 2007 Washington Post editorial noted a bipartisan Senate intelligence committee determined that nearly all of Wilson’s claims were false. The Post acknowledged there was no nefarious conspiracy to destroy the careers of Wilson and Plame. Worse, journalist Judith Miller stated in her 2015 book that Fitzgerald withheld evidence from her that led her to testify falsely. In effect, she recanted the testimony Fitzgerald used to win Libby’s conviction.

Nevertheless, the damage was done to the Bush administration’s ability to fight the Iraq War and take other policy actions, from reforming Social Security to eliminating the Syrian nuclear reactor at al-Kidar to dealing with Iran.

The Flynn Dox Might Be a Fishing Expedition

The matter that led to Flynn’s resignation has more than a whiff of déjà vu all over again. Once again, we have a high government official forced to resign not for his actions, but for supposed untruths he told about his actions after the fact. In this case, Flynn is supposed to have misled the FBI by stating he did not discuss sanctions during a call with the Russian ambassador to the United States in December 2016.

Supposedly transcripts of the call exist, though they have not been made public. Surely the transcripts are available to the FBI agents who interrogated Flynn. They could easily determine exactly what Flynn discussed with the Russian ambassador without needing to interrogate Flynn. Interrogating Flynn about a telephone call whose contents were already available to the FBI could serve only one purpose: to create a perjury trap for Flynn.

This has obvious similarities to what happened to Libby in the Plame matter. Even though the Plame special prosecutor knew the Plame leaker was Armitage, he continued to investigate and supposedly caught Libby in a perjury trap.

It was perfectly proper for Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, to speak with foreign countries’ ambassadors to the United States. That is what transitions are for. It is ludicrous to believe that an incoming administration can take no action and talk to no foreign representatives before noon on January 20. That is absurd, and I strongly doubt the Obama team met this standard. The point of a transition is to be able to hit the ground running and maintain continuity in government, including in relationships with foreign countries.

So what did Flynn in was not the fact of his call to the Russian ambassador, just as Libby was not done in by leaking Plame’s name (as he wasn’t the leaker). Both cases involved “a cover-up in search of a crime,” as columnist Charles Krauthammer has said.

Flynn Also Has Plausible Deniability

One can also easily imagine a scenario in which Flynn did not believe he had discussed the new Russia sanctions but, in a strict interpretation, one might believe he did. If during the call the Russian ambassador asked about the sanctions, and Flynn said “We are going to review the entire Russia policy, but I can’t discuss the sanctions or anything else specifically,” did Flynn discuss the sanctions?

Another similarity between the Plame and Flynn affairs is that the Democratic Party is deliberately muddying their meaning to inflate their significance. In the Plame case, the trial became a proxy for the entire Iraq War effort. Recall that many Democrats initially voted for the authorization to use force in Iraq and only turned against the war when the United States began suffering setbacks.

Another similarity between the Plame and Flynn affairs is that the Democratic Party is deliberately muddying their meaning to inflate their significance.

Democrats, led by their presidential candidates including John Kerry, justified turning against the war by claiming President Bush had lied them into supporting it. They proclaimed Libby’s perjury conviction as proof. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated, “the [Libby trial] testimony unmistakably revealed—at the highest levels of the Bush administration—a callous disregard in handling sensitive national security information and a disposition to smear critics of the war in Iraq.”

The Democrats thus deliberately and strategically used a narrow perjury conviction to discredit the entire Bush Iraq policy and build a larger story of the nefarious, lying Bush administration—while conveniently eliminating their culpability for supporting the Iraq War.

Democrats are taking the same approach with Flynn’s call, blowing it up into evidence that the Russians and the Trump team somehow conspired to get Trump elected. The nub of the entire Flynn controversy is that Flynn talked to the Russian ambassador just as the Obama administration began taking action against Russia for its supposed meddling in the presidential election. That is, Democrats’ ginned-up, recently discovered concern about Russia is what underlies the entire Flynn matter.

The Obama administration only began taking a hard line on Russia in the last few weeks of its tenure, probably to help reinforce the notion that Russia somehow helped Trump win. Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine and indiscriminate bombing and atrocious human rights violations in Syria led to no serious consequences from the United States. Only when the Democrats went looking for someone to blame the election loss on did Russia enter the crosshairs.

Democrats Are Being Vindictive Losers

Unable to win the election, the Democrats have resorted to lawfare to re-litigate the election and destroy the elected president. Democrats did not win at the ballot box and are determined to tie the winners in knots to prevent them from governing. By muddying the waters and conflating small incidents with their larger conspiracy theories, they hope Americans will assume that where there is a whole lot of smoke, there must be some fire, even if Democrats are manufacturing the smoke.

Unable to win the election, the Democrats have resorted to lawfare to re-litigate the election and destroy the elected president.

The Trump administration needs to understand the game Democrats are playing and rewrite the rules. First, it must not appoint a special prosecutor under any circumstances. In her book, Miller says Libby’s lawyer told her “Fitzgerald had twice offered to drop all charges against Libby if his client would ‘deliver’ [Vice President] Cheney to him.” The Trump administration cannot similarly allow a special prosecutor to run wild in search of a high-ranking scalp.

In addition, the congressional committees investigating the Flynn matter need to avoid getting drawn into a witch hunt for senior Trump officials. Republican leadership must maintain firm boundaries around any investigations and avoid the fishing expedition Democrats desperately desire. A fishing expedition will tie up enormous resources in document requests, interviews, and testimony, distracting from Republicans’ policy work. Such distractions would be a victory for the Left.

The investigating committees need to be very careful their investigation does not expand into any and all communications with and ties to Russia of anyone associated with the Trump campaign. The entire argument that the Russians “hacked” the election to affirmatively assist Trump is an edifice of innuendo. Congress must not add more bricks to it.

The investigating committees should also focus on the leakers of the information about Flynn’s call transcripts. These leaks are unacceptable and possibly criminal. They may also represent the presence of anti-Trump bureaucrats attempting to undermine the elected president. Unlike anything President Trump has done, this is a real threat to democracy and the will of the electorate.

Double Down, Trump Team

Second, the Trump administration needs to accelerate the pace of appointing officials to staff the government. Federal agencies have had weeks without political leadership as the Democrats have bogged down the confirmation process to an unprecedented degree. Democratic-leaning bureaucrats have had weeks to create all kinds of mischief, from inappropriate and potentially illegal leaking to organizing resistance at the Environmental Protection Agency and elsewhere. The agencies need adult supervision immediately.

The Trump team will need to be vigilant against Democrats’ future deployment of lawfare to claim other scalps.

Third, the Trump administration needs to change the subject. It got off to a good start by replacing Flynn with Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. It now needs to move forward on its priorities: tax reform, budget cutting and seriousness about controlling the national debt, and Obamacare replacement. These three initiatives are likely to unleash as big an economic boom as we’ve seen in the twenty-first century. Bill Clinton proved people will tolerate a lot during good economic times.

That said, the Trump team should be aware that the Flynn resignation is a bad precedent, just as the Libby prosecution was. It’s a template for how to drive Left-displeasing officials from office. The Trump team will need to be vigilant against Democrats’ future deployment of lawfare to claim other scalps.

The Trump administration is off to a good start and is building momentum to pursue conservative wish-list items such as tax reform and Obamacare repeal. Democrats know this, and will do everything they can to derail these efforts. With Flynn, Democrats proved they are prepared to run the Plame play from their scorched-earth playbook. The Trump team needs to be prepared for next time to effectively defend against it.

Michael is an attorney in Washington DC for the U.S. government, and a 2002 graduate of Harvard Law School.

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