WASHINGTON (TNS) — Republican senators called Tuesday for a full and open investigation into President Donald Trump’s connections to Russia, a startling crack in party unity as the White House rushed to regroup after the departure of national security adviser Michael Flynn over his admission that he misled administration officials about his contacts with a Russian diplomat.
“We should look into it exhaustively so that at the end of this process nobody wonders whether there was a stone left unturned, and shouldn’t reach conclusions before you have the information that you need to have to make those conclusions,” Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., a member of the Senate intelligence committee and vice chairman of the Senate Republican conference, told a St. Louis radio station.
He demanded to know whether Flynn was acting on his own or directed by others. He did not name Trump, and the White House insisted that if Flynn had acted out of line, it was not at Trump’s behest.
But Flynn’s resignation late Monday only served to ramp up questions about Russia’s influence on Trump and his administration, particularly given the White House’s refusal to act on mounting evidence Flynn had misled officials about conversations with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Democratic lawmakers called for Flynn to testify on the matter; House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has pushed for a 9/11-style panel to investigate Russia’s role in the election.
Flynn’s trouble began last month with reports that he had discussed impending U.S. sanctions with Kislyak before Trump took office, a breach of protocol that also raised questions about whether he violated laws banning U.S. citizens from engaging in foreign policy.
Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump officials had backed Flynn, but Flynn’s assertion that he and Kislyak did not discuss sanctions was undermined last week by reports that evidence of their talks existed, including transcripts from routine U.S. monitoring of foreign officials’ communications.
The White House moved Tuesday to distance itself from Flynn.
“Misleading the vice president really was the key,” Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said on NBC’s “Today” show. “That made the situation unsustainable.”
She tried to portray Trump as divided between his loyalties and the distraction Flynn had become.
“The president’s very loyal. He’s a very loyal person,” Conway said. “(Flynn) knew he had become a lightning rod and he made that decision.”
Trump ignored shouted questions about Flynn at a meeting Tuesday at the White House. His only public response was a tweet questioning why “so many illegal leaks” were made to the news media.
As Trump met with Pence and ultimately Flynn on Monday night before the resignation was announced, The Washington Post first revealed another layer to the saga: Law enforcement and intelligence officials had told the White House weeks ago about evidence contradicting Flynn’s accounts of his calls with Kislyak and that they were concerned he would be susceptible to blackmail by Russia.
The Obama administration had imposed sanctions Dec. 29 to punish Russia for meddling in the U.S. election, but Russia declined to retaliate, sounding alarms for Sally Yates, then the deputy attorney general, and others, according to a former and a current U.S. official. Yates briefly served as acting attorney general under Trump before being fired for refusing to defend in court his temporary bans on entry into the U.S. by refugees and people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
Intelligence officials began searching databases and found logs of calls between Kislyak and Flynn. They obtained transcripts of the secretly recorded phone calls and realized that Flynn and the ambassador had discussed the sanctions, the officials said. The officials declined to provide details about the discussions.
Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador emerged in news reports in mid-January, before Trump’s inauguration. His transition team denied that sanctions were discussed in the calls, and Pence told CBS News that the timing of Flynn’s call with the ambassador, as sanctions were announced, was “entirely coincidental.”
Yates and Obama administration intelligence officials grew anxious because Pence’s statement introduced the possibility that Flynn had lied to him. If so, Flynn might be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians who could threaten to expose him, said the former official.
Yates and other Obama administration officials discussed whether to alert Trump but decided against it to preserve the FBI’s broader investigation of potential ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The officials declined to discuss the nature of that investigation.
Then, on Jan. 23, White House press secretary Sean Spicer again claimed sanctions were not discussed, again astonishing Yates.
After discussing the matter with U.S. law enforcement officials, Yates felt she had to alert the White House because the risks of blackmail were too great and Flynn was in potential violation of the Logan Act, a never-used law from 1799 that bars citizens from negotiating with other governments.
Yates approached White House counsel Donald McGahn and alerted him to the transcripts and discussion of sanctions. It is not clear what McGahn did with the information.
Flynn’s resignation “raises further questions about the Trump administration’s intentions” toward Russia, Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday, calling it “a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus.”
House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, R-Wis., said the White House made the right decision in asking for Flynn’s resignation _ which the White House maintained was not the case _ as he sidestepped calls for an independent probe.
“The administration will explain the circumstances that led to this,” he told reporters Tuesday at the Capitol.
Trump named retired Army Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as a campaign adviser, as acting national security adviser, and a senior administration official said he was under consideration to be the permanent replacement. Trump is also considering retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward and retired Army Gen. David H. Petraeus for the post.