The Trump administration: week four . . . and counting
A week is a long time in politics, but president proves some weeks are longer than others
Donald Trump: The US president speaks during his extraordinary Thursday press conference, during which he berated the “out of control” media. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images
Sunday, February 12th
Signs emerge that the position of Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, is under threat. Rumours about Flynn’s status in the Trump administration had surfaced days earlier, when the Washington Post reported that Flynn had rowed back on a denial that he had discussed sanctions against Russia with Moscow’s ambassador during a phone call on December 29th. This would be a potentially illegal action under a 1799 law known as the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from engaging in diplomacy with foreign powers.
Flynn is now saying that “while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up”. Trump’s senior adviser, Stephen Miller, sent out to represent his boss on the main Sunday morning chatshows, repeatedly sidesteps the question when asked if the president still has confidence in his top security official.
Mixed messages emanate from within the White House about Flynn’s position. While Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway says during a TV interview that Flynn has the full confidence of the president, this is contradicted just over an hour later by White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who says Trump is “evaluating” the situation.
Late on Monday night, the New York Times and CNN report that former acting attorney general Sally Yates – who was fired by Trump on January 30th for “betrayal” over his immigration executive order – had informed the White House that Flynn may have misled senior administration officials about the nature of his phone call with the ambassador, and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail as a result.
Just before midnight, Flynn resigns, stating in his resignation letter that he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information”.
Questions quickly emerge about the chain of events leading to Flynn’s resignation, as well as how much the White House knew, both about his disputed call with the Russian ambassador and press reports that the justice department had warned the White House that Flynn may be compromised.
Facing the media, Sean Spicer insists that the president had simply lost trust in Flynn and demanded his security chief’s resignation on Monday night. But Spicer also confirms that Trump and senior officials were briefed by the White House counsel about Sally Yates’s warnings on January 26th – 19 days before Trump fired Flynn.
The New York Times reports that FBI officials have evidence showing that senior Trump advisers, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, had frequent contact with Russian intelligence officials during the presidential campaign.
In a barrage of early morning tweets, Trump condemns the report, saying the “Russian connection non-sense” was an attempt to cover up mistakes made by the Hillary Clinton campaign. He also states that the “real story” is that information is being illegally given to the “failing” New York Times and Washington Post – a theme that he will build on during the week. He also defends Michael Flynn, who he had fired on Tuesday, as a “great man” who had been mistreated by the media.
The reports about the links between Trump officials and the Kremlin overshadow the visit of Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to the White House. During the visit, Trump suggests he is prepared to abandon the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marking a radical break from decades of US policy on the Middle East.
As the Trump administration continues to focus on the leaks from the intelligence community that led to the reports claiming links between campaign officials and the Kremlin, the New York Times reports that Trump is considering appointing a billionaire, Stephen A Feinberg, to undertake a review of US intelligence agencies.
Meanwhile, disagreement reigns in Congress about whether to examine the Flynn-Russia affair, with only a handful of Republicans prepared to join Democrats in calling for a full-scale investigation.
At noon, Trump convenes a hastily arranged press conference. Ostensibly the purpose is to announce the nomination of Alexander Acosta for the post of labour secretary, following Andrew Puzder’s withdrawal from the process after a video emerged of his ex-wife on Oprah Winfrey’s show accusing him of abuse. But the president quickly moves on from that by launching a blistering attack on the media.
In an extraordinary exposition, Trump speaks and then takes questions for an hour and 15 minutes, without any press assistants or advisers by his side. The president lambasts an “out of control” media and appears to contradict himself a number of times, acknowledging that the recent leaks to the press were accurate but the news was “fake”.
Advisers confirm that Trump’s decision to hold the press conference was taken by him alone. Supporters appear to respond well to the free-for-all press conference; many in the media and political establishment are left astonished.
White House officials awake to the news that Trump’s pick to succeed Michael Flynn as the country’s top security official, retired vice-admiral Bob Harward, has declined the post.
Controversy over the administration’s links with Russia continues: The Washington Post reports that Flynn denied during an interview with the FBI on January 24th that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
In the morning, Trump flies to South Carolina en route to his home in Mar-a-Lago, Florida, to attend the launch of the debut of the Boeing 787-10 Dreamliner, thus bringing to a close his first four weeks in office