Did Trump offer Putin sanctions relief?

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Published: Updated:

Gen. Michael Flynn was the first sacrificial lamb of the Trump administration. But behind the gory details of this scandal, there lies a question which nobody seems to be asking: how much of Gen. Flynn’s actions did President-elect Trump know about, and when?

Let us quickly recap the situation: at the end of December, President Obama put another layer of sanctions on Russia for its meddling in the US election – a charge that Russia denies, but for which there is as good corroborating evidence coming out of the US intelligence community as you can hope for. On the very same day that the sanctions were announced, it later emerged, Gen. Flynn had been on the phone with the Russian ambassador in Washington no fewer than five times.

Coincidentally or not, Russia then did not retaliate to the new sanctions. This is completely out of character for the Russians. And Gen. Flynn had since been appointed National Security Adviser to the President, when President Trump moved into the White House.

Gen. Flynn has previously denied the phone calls. Then he admitted that some phone calls happened, but denied their content. Unfortunately for Gen. Flynn, the ambassador’s phone was, naturally, tapped by the American intelligence agencies and the transcript of the exact content of the calls emerged.

Gen. Flynn did not, strictly speaking, “negotiate” with the Russians to not retaliate to the sanctions. Rather, he just gave every assurance that relations between the United States and Russia would be very different once Donald Trump took office. Which is to say that President Obama’s sanctions would be pointless, and they would not warrant a diplomatic response.

Gen. Flynn should be thankful for being relieved of his duties, because much of the heat will not be taken off him, as it moves on to the other catastrophe-prone members of the presidential team

Dr. Azeem Ibrahim

Critical issues

These events raise several critical issues. First, Gen. Flynn communicated with a foreign power on matters of US foreign policy without any authorization by the acting executive of the United States. This is illegal according to the Logan Act (1799), which prohibits citizens to negotiate on behalf of the United States with foreign powers without authorization.

The likelihood that Gen. Flynn will be prosecuted for this is negligible, not least because nobody has ever been prosecuted under the Act, but through his behaviour, Gen. Flynn had painted big crosshairs on his head for the Democratic opposition to the Trump administration, and thus became baggage for Trump.

Though to be fair, Gen. Flynn should be thankful for being relieved of his duties, because much of the heat will not be taken off him, as it moves on to the other catastrophe-prone members of the presidential team.

Secondly, and a point that should not be overlooked, Gen. Flynn briefed in direct opposition to the acting Commander-in-Chief, and undermined the stated position of the Government of the United States. If he acted on his own, it was treason. Luckily for Gen. Flynn, he is retired and thus no longer a member of the military hierarchy, or he would have been lined up for court-martial.

Unconstitutional intervention?

But thirdly, what if Gen. Flynn did this at the behest of the President-elect Trump? If President-elect Trump directed Gen. Flynn to speak to the Russians, then this was an unconstitutional intervention from the incoming President. In the words of Chris Christie, “the United States only has one President at a time”.

This would be instant grounds for impeachment. And one suspects that if the President had been a Democrat, the impeachment hearings would have already started. But even if Trump only found about it later, it is unlikely that he only heard about it now. In all likelihood, he knew about this before the inauguration and proceeded to reward Gen. Flynn for his treason with the position of National Security Advisor.

It will be interesting to see what becomes of Gen. Flynn now that the ruse was discovered, and he no longer enjoys the protection of the President. Even more interesting will be what President Trump will do. Will he wash his hands off the situation and direct the Attorney General to prosecute Michael Flynn?

Can he still afford politically a thaw in relations with Russia which might indicate that he did, in fact, coordinate with the Russians before taking office? Whatever happens, I don’t imagine we’ve heard the last of this.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.

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