White House press secretary Sean Spicer stood up before the Washington press corps on Tuesday and told several lies to cover up President Donald Trump’s lies about the scandal surrounding now ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn. These lies are important, and they make it clear that the White House’s official story of how the administration handled Flynn’s falsehoods about his contacts with the Russian government does not make sense.
One of the critical questions swirling around this scandal has been when exactly Trump learned that his national security adviser had discussed the Obama administration's sanctions on Russia during a Dec. 29 phone conversation with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The only comment Trump has made on the issue came on Feb. 10, the day after The Washington Post reported that Flynn had indeed discussed the sanctions with the Russian ambassador and had falsely denied ever having done so. A reporter aboard Air Force One asked the president, “What do you make of reports that Gen. Flynn had conversations with the Russians about sanctions before you were sworn in?” Trump pleaded ignorance: “I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it. What report is that?”
At today’s press briefing, Spicer revealed that this wasn’t true. “Immediately after the Department of Justice notified the White House counsel of the situation” in late January, Spicer said, “the White House counsel briefed the president and a small group of his senior advisers.” So Trump, by his spokesman’s account, knew about Flynn’s lies for several weeks and then, shall we say, misled reporters when asked about it.
When Major Garrett of CBS News asked Spicer at Tuesday’s press briefing if Trump had been “truthful,” Spicer tried to argue that Trump had not lied at all. The president, Spicer insisted, had been asked “specifically” about The Washington Post story and replied that “he hadn’t seen that at the time.” As the video and transcript of Trump’s interaction with the press demonstrate, that was another lie: Trump was asked about “reports” in general, said he didn’t know anything and was then told by a reporter that The Washington Post had reported on it.
So now we know, by the White House’s own account, that Trump has known since late January that his national security adviser lied to him, lied to the vice president and lied to pretty much everyone about his contacts with Russia. According to Spicer, the period between then and yesterday evening was spent “trying to ascertain the truth” about what Flynn had done and the ultimate result was that “the level of trust between the president and Gen. Flynn had eroded to the point that [Trump] felt he had to make a change.”
That doesn’t make much sense. Let's review: The Justice Department warned the administration in late January that Flynn had not been fully honest about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and stressed that he could have put himself in a compromised position by doing so. The White House is arguing that it took Trump more than two weeks to determine that this represented a major breach of trust and national security, at which point Trump fired Flynn. During that time, Flynn remained involved in sensitive national security discussions — Flynn’s announcement that Iran was “on notice” came on Feb. 1, several days after Trump learned that Flynn had lied about his Russian contacts.
The key moment in all this is The Washington Post report on Feb. 9, indicating that Flynn had, in fact, misled the White House. That’s when the public pressure on the administration became unsustainable and when leaks started springing from the White House trying to insulate Mike Pence from Flynn’s scandalous behavior. There was no public comment from the White House on Flynn, other than Trump’s Air Force One statement that he was unaware of the news reports, Stephen Miller’s non-answers last weekend about Trump’s confidence in his national security adviser and Kellyanne Conway’s insistence that Flynn had Trump’s “full confidence.”
It seems clear that Flynn lied in an effort to protect his job and Trump lied in an effort to protect Flynn — and, by extension, himself. Now that those lies have all been exposed, Spicer is lying in an effort to to protect the president from a major scandal.