WASHINGTON (Sinclair Broadcast Group) — Donald Trump's decision to dismiss his national security adviser Michael Flynn on Monday for misrepresenting his contact with Russian officials during the transition period may only be the beginning of the White House's Russia problems.
In Congress there is a renewed push for the broad-scope investigation into Russian meddling in the November election, which will include all contact between Russian officials and individuals associated with the presidential campaigns. Though the House is dragging its feet on the probe, both Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee agreed to the parameters of this investigation back in January.
That investigation just took on a new degree of importance after Trump gave the message to Flynn ("you're fired") for misleading top White House officials, including the vice president, about direct talks he had with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition period.
Democrats have seized on the disarray at the White House to add momentum to the scheduled intelligence investigation and have now called for a new investigation by the Department of Justice. Over the past 24 hours, the leadership of the party has insisted that the Department of Justice should investigate Flynn's behavior, and that the investigation should take place without any participation by the newly confirmed Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Neither the FBI or DOJ have officially confirmed that they are investigating the former national security adviser, but the White House confirmed on Tuesday that Trump ordered a legal review of Flynn's case back in January. The White House also confirmed leaked reports that the Department of Justice, then under acting Attorney General Sally Yates, had warned the White House counsel about Flynn's Russia contacts and potential vulnerabilities on January 26, two weeks before Trump fired Flynn.
Press secretary Sean Spicer acknowledged that President Trump "was aware of the situation right after the White House Counsel informed him back in January." At that time, he said the president ordered a legal review of Flynn's behavior, but reportedly found nothing incriminating. The decision to fire Flynn, said Spicer, "came down to a matter of trust."
On top of the Flynn fiasco, additional reports have surfaced revealing that members of Trump's presidential campaign had repeated contacts with Russian intelligence officials. Former and current government officials leaked the information which is based on a series of communications intercepted by U.S. intelligence agencies around the same time they were investigating the DNC hack.
After calling an emergency meeting of the Democratic caucus on Wednesday afternoon, minority leader Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) announced that investigations into Trump administration, transition, and campaign officials Russian contacts will go forward along two tracks. In the Senate, the Intelligence Committee will take the lead, but "it will not be the only committee" investigating the matter. The Judiciary Committee may also begin its own probe.
The second track will be through the Justice Department, an investigation that Schumer and the Democrats said Attorney General Jeff Sessions can take no part in.
"Sen. Sessions must follow Department of Justice guidance and recuse himself," Schumer insisted. "If this trail leads to the Oval Office, the person investigating that trail should not be the same person who helped put President Trump there."
Republicans have largely been silent on the issue of Flynn's Russia contacts, except to affirm that the intelligence committee investigation will move forward.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told reporters on Wednesday that he is still seeking a special select committee to study all issues related to Russian interference in American affairs. But until that time he wants a step-wise investigation. "We need to answer questions before we decide what we need to do, and those are simple questions: What did the president know? What did Flynn know? Who else made phone calls? All these questions can be answered in a very short term," he said.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) tweeted confirmation that the Intelligence Committee "will add" the Flynn investigation to the Russia probe.
On the House side, a bipartisan grouping has taken aim at the administration by introducing legislation that would limit Trump's ability to unilaterally lift sanctions on Russia, one of the issues reportedly discussed between Flynn and Russian ambassador Kislyak. The legislation was driven by lawmakers' fears that Trump will be soft on Russia, after consistent statements during the campaign and the transition period praising Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggesting his willingness to lift Obama-era sanctions.
A group of three Democrats and three Republicans led by minority whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) introduced a bill on Wednesday (identical to a bipartisan bill in the Senate) that would require the White House to submit to Congress any measure providing Russian sanctions relief. The Congress would then have 120 days to review the proposal before the president can waive sanctions.
For the congressional Democrats who are pushing the legislation, the issue of maintaining sanctions is only one part of managing the growing challenges in the U.S.-Russian relationship.
"It is obviously clear that Putin is testing the new administration," Rep. Elliot Engel (D-N.Y) said of the Russian president.
Since President Trump took office, reports have surfaced of Russian spy ships approximately 30 miles off the east coast in international waters, keeping tabs on the Navy base in Groton, Connecticut, where a new generation of nuclear submarines is being built.
This week, new reports surfaced of ongoing Russian violations of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a U.S.-Russian arms control agreement that prohibited either side from testing or deploying the uniquely destabilizing medium-range nuclear cruise missiles. Despite the State Department knowing about INF violations since 2014, the new report suggests that the Russian military has moved from testing their ground-launched cruise missile to deploying it.
Sen. McCain concurred that Russia is indeed testing the United States, both with the spy ship, the new cruise missile deployment, and by stepping up military activities and support for anti-government forces in eastern Ukraine. "They're testing [us] in a lot of other ways," he added.
Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) rejected the narrative that Russia's recent provocations towards the United States were intended to test the new administration, but are part of a longer-term pattern of behavior.
"We have known about the [ground-launched cruise missiles] for a long time, we've known they violated the INF," Corker said, adding that Russian intelligence gathering near the U.S. was also nothing new.
"You would think if they were hoping for good things to come out of this administration, they would certainly not do new things that are inflammatory," he explained. "That just doesn't fit the narrative."
Even if Putin is not intentionally challenging Trump with recent actions, for experts in the arms control community the new Trump administration could face deeper problems, in particular its lack of preparedness to handle the complex strategic relationship between Washington and Moscow.
John Tierney, a former congressman and executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, noted that Russia's cruise missile deployment was likely scheduled to coincide with the presidential transition "as a way to test the new president."
If in fact the cruise missiles were deployed in early January, which has not yet been confirmed, Russia could have been taking advantage of the the fact that Trump did not have his cabinet secretaries in place, or senior staff and experts below the secretarial level, and was otherwise unprepared to respond.
"There was obviously a disarray happening, and it was going to continue for awhile," Tierney said. "It provided an absolutely opportune time for a power like Russia to use that window to do something that otherwise might have gotten a stronger response, figuring that this administration at least wouldn't be in a position to be ready to really have a strong and organized response." In addition, a successful deployment of the cruise missile would provide Russia with a bargaining chip in future national security talks.
There are clear concerns about the administration and Russia, ranging from contact with officials that could have compromised members of the administration, to questions about Trump's commitment to nuclear non-proliferation. But Tierney argued that despite these concerns, there are still areas of mutual interest for both parties to move forward.
"The president is probably going to get a lot of advice from the hawks and those people who always want to get kinetic and cause trouble, saying that he should respond in a forceful way," he explained, but he should resist that path.
"He ought to first, tighten up his own ship, get his appointments [in place] and then he should use this opportunity to enter discussions with the Russians," he advised. Trump has claimed to be a strong negotiator, Tierney says he should put the skill to work.
"Broaden out the conversation," he stated, "Work on continuing mutual elimination of nuclear weapons and a decrease in the rhetoric, in the temperature between the parties and get people back, hopefully, to a situation where they work cooperatively" on areas of mutual interest.