Many days after he should have been summarily fired, Michael Flynn has resigned as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn’s position within the administration had become unsustainable after The Washington Post reported last week that he had lied about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. prior to Trump’s inauguration. Trump sat on his hands and his aides ducked all substantive comment on the matter until Flynn’s abrupt resignation on Monday night.
Let’s pick this apart a bit, shall we? As a policy matter, Flynn's departure from the West Wing is an unalloyed good. Flynn was an incompetent manager whose brief tenure as national security adviser put the National Security Council in disarray. His only major public action was to announce that the administration was placing Iran “on notice” — a term that sounded serious and threatening despite the fact that no one knew what it meant. Furthermore, he is an Islamophobic nut who was likely to use every lever of power within his grasp to persecute Muslims in the name of “national security.”
In terms of the broader scandal, well, the national security adviser just resigned after less than a month on the job. That’s big. He quit because he lied about his contacts with a foreign government and because other senior administration officials vouched for his lies. The Washington Post reported that in late January the Justice Department, under the then acting attorney general, Sally Yates, warned the White House that Flynn had not been truthful about his contacts with Russia and, as a result, may have compromised himself. (Yates was fired by Trump days later, after she refused to enforce the president’s executive order barring the U.S. entry of travelers from certain predominantly Muslim nations.)
The big questions surrounding all this is what Flynn talked to the Russians about and how much Trump knew about it. The Justice Department’s warning about Flynn was conveyed to White House counsel Don McGahn, but nobody knows where that information went after McGahn received it. The controversy swirling around Flynn’s contacts with the Russians and the challenges to his credibility certainly aren’t recent developments. So it’s natural to wonder whether Flynn was acting with Trump’s consent or whether the president disregarded his top national security adviser’s compromised position. For the moment, the White House doesn’t have any coherent explanation for what transpired.
To say there’s blood in the water doesn’t do justice to this situation: The administration is so new and so scandal plagued that right now there’s more blood than water.
That brings us to a critical issue going forward: the response by congressional Republicans. Up to this point, the GOP has been willing to tolerate the incompetence, absurdity and corruption of the Trump administration because Republicans need the president to get on board with their agenda and sign it into law. Leading figures in the Republican Party made a clear calculation all the way back when Trump triumphed in the presidential primaries: The risk Trump posed as a bumbling, venal ignoramus with authoritarian tendencies was worth it as long as they could obliterate Obamacare, cut taxes for the rich and torch the social safety net.
What they didn't anticipate was that Trump's administration would be consumed by scandal so quickly: None of the Republicans' major legislative items have even been drafted, let alone passed. The GOP took a big risk on Trump, and to this point this has backfired horribly before the party has had a chance to wring any political benefit from it whatever.
Flynn’s resignation now forces Republicans into taking some sort of action. If they move to investigate Flynn’s contacts with the Russians and probe deeper into this burgeoning scandal, they will risk upsetting the administration and upending their agenda still further. On the other hand, they could do nothing, which would make them full, active partners in the Trump administration’s flailing destruction of American governing institutions.