After multiple public statements from the White House, there are still numerous unanswered questions surrounding Michael Flynn's Monday-night resignation from his position as national security adviser.
Flynn is under fire for a discussion he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day that the U.S. announced sanctions for cyberhacking that took place during the U.S. election.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer characterized the resignation as being about "eroding trust" between President Trump and Flynn, rather than a legal issue, and he said it was Trump's decision to have Flynn step down. House Speaker Paul Ryan also said the resignation was Trump's call. Those accounts contradict earlier remarks from White House adviser Kellyanne Conway, who said the move was Flynn's.
Here are the six questions we still have about the events:
1. What exactly did Flynn say about U.S. sanctions in his call with Kislyak?
Spicer maintained Tuesday that Flynn being asked to step down was about "trust" and that there was "nothing wrong or inappropriate" about Flynn's call with the ambassador. There is a transcript of the call produced by the intelligence community, NPR has confirmed. It shows there was discussion about the sanctions. "Still, current and former administration officials familiar with the call said the transcript was ambiguous enough that Mr. Trump could have justified either firing or retaining Mr. Flynn," the New York Times reported.
Flynn briefed Vice President Pence before Pence made a round of TV appearances Jan. 15 in which he denied Flynn discussed the sanctions in the call. Spicer said on Jan. 13 that Flynn told him the call was to convey Christmas greetings, condolences for a plane crash that killed members of a Russian military choir, Russian talks about the war in Syria and logistics for a post-inauguration call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In his resignation letter, Flynn apologized for giving the vice president and others "incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador."
2. Did Flynn's conversation influence Russia's decision not to retaliate with sanctions of its own?
The Obama administration announced sanctions on Dec. 29 in response to findings that Russia used cyberattacks during the presidential campaign in an effort to assist Trump. The administration expected Russia to retaliate, but it never did. At the time, Trump tweeted glowingly about Putin's decision not to react.
3. Why wait until now to ask for a resignation?
NPR's Carrie Johnson reports that the White House knew Flynn's public statements didn't match what occurred.
Johnson reports that former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, since fired over her stance to not enforce Trump's travel ban, told White House Counsel Donald McGahn about the call's actual contents. Spicer said Tuesday that the Justice Department notified White House counsel on Jan. 26 and that the president was notified immediately.
Spicer said that the White House has been "reviewing and evaluating this issue on a daily basis" for a few weeks and that Flynn has been questioned on multiple occasions.
As the Washington Post notes, though, on Friday Trump gave reporters the impression that he "was not familiar with a Washington Post report that revealed that Flynn had not told the truth about the calls."
4. Who was behind the initial leak?
Who was the first person to share that Flynn had spoken to the Russian ambassador? Trump himself asked Tuesday morning in a tweet, "Why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?" Spicer echoed concerns about the leak in his briefing.
The Post's Callum Borchers has three theories on "why the Trump White House keeps leaking":
- They can't help but gossip,
- It's all distraction, getting media to pay attention to "who has power, rather than what the people in power are actually doing," or
- Bait for negative coverage so that it can continue to "cast the media as a political opponent."
But it's also possible, if not likely, that the leaks on this issue came from the intelligence community or Justice Department. That could mean that there are people in the government and national security infrastructure who had genuine concerns about Flynn and how Trump's White House is being run.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., blasted the leaks in a hallway interview on Tuesday, NPR's Susan Davis reports.
"Here's what I know: Gen. Flynn did not break the law talking to the Russia ambassador; in fact, that's his job," Nunes said. "Who did break the law is whoever recorded this, unmasked it and leaked it, that is clearly multiple violations."
5. Who will replace Flynn?
Spicer said in a briefing Tuesday afternoon the president is "currently evaluating a group of strong candidates."
Three are thought to be the leading contenders:
- Ret. Lt. Gen. Joseph Kellogg, the acting national security adviser, named with Flynn's resignation;
- Ret. Vice Adm. Robert Harward, the former deputy director of CENTCOM during the Obama administration. He's a former Navy SEAL who grew up in Iran; and
- Ret. Gen. David Petraeus, the former CIA director in the Obama administration who was sentenced to two years' probation and had to pay a $100,000 fine for sharing classified information with a woman he was having an affair with. His probation expires in April.
Also in the running is John Kelly, who was recently confirmed as Trump's homeland security secretary, NPR's Tom Bowman reports.
But, Bowman reports, the smart money is on Harward for now.
6. Will Trump continue to speak with Flynn anyway?
Trump is known to pick up his cellphone. And Flynn is someone who was one of Trump's closest and most trusted national security advisers during the campaign.
Flynn surely has that number. And there's some precedent for it. Trump has continued communication with other former aides and advisers, including Corey Lewandowski, who was was fired as Trump's campaign manager in June.