Tuesday morning, White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway went on TV to explain why National Security Adviser Mike Flynn had resigned overnight. Flynn’s undoing came in a sequence of four events. First, in a Dec. 29 phone call, Flynn secretly hinted to Russia’s ambassador that sanctions imposed by President Obama—to punish Russia for intervening in the presidential election—might be relaxed once Donald Trump took office. Later, Flynn told Vice President Mike Pence and others in the administration that in that phone call, he hadn’t discussed sanctions with the ambassador. Then, on Jan. 26, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates presented evidence of Flynn’s deception—based on U.S. intelligence transcripts of Flynn’s calls—to Trump’s White House counsel, Don McGahn. Finally, on Thursday, a day after firmly denying he had discussed sanctions with the ambassador, Flynn conceded that he “couldn’t be certain.”
That sequence raises questions about who knew what in the White House, when they knew it, and why Flynn stayed in his job for three weeks after Yates went to McGahn—only to be brought down once the Washington Post, on Monday night, revealed the Yates warning.
So how did Conway answer those questions? She minimized and excused the scandal. In doing so, she clarified the Trump administration’s four fundamental psychopathologies.
1. Loyalty within Trump’s circle is more important than loyalty to country. Conway emphasized that Trump had continued to support Flynn because “the president is very loyal.” This puzzled NBC’s Matt Lauer. He pointed out that Flynn had misled Pence and that Pence, in turn, had misled the country. Lauer reminded Conway that despite this, “You said late yesterday afternoon that the president had full confidence in Gen. Flynn. How could that be true?” Conway brushed aside this appeal to Trump’s duty to the public, focusing instead on Trump’s duty to Flynn. “The president’s very loyal,” she repeated.
2. The only information that matters is what comes from Trump’s circle. Lauer brought up the account of Flynn’s call, which was delivered to McGahn by the Justice Department based on a recording by the intelligence community. Conway indicated that she didn’t buy it: “That’s one characterization.” When George Stephanopoulos cited the same account on Good Morning America, Conway dismissed it as “printed reports.” Evidence presented by the intelligence community and the Justice Department wasn’t enough to make Trump fire Flynn. Nor did the administration accept media reports about that evidence. According to Conway, what forced Flynn to leave was his public admission “over the weekend” that his assurances had been unreliable. The administration accepts only one arbiter of truth and falsehood: itself.
3. The only standard of right and wrong is what Trump thinks. Conway batted away complaints about Flynn’s deception, noting that he had continued to enjoy Trump’s support. She told Lauer: “The fact is that Gen. Flynn continued in that position and was in the presidential daily briefings, was part of the leader calls as recently as yesterday, was there for the prime minister’s visit from Canada yesterday.” Conway seemed to be asking viewers to believe that Trump’s decision to stick with Flynn reflected well on Flynn rather than badly on Trump. To Lauer, that was nuts: Flynn had been exposed as objectively unfit. But to Conway, there’s no such thing as objective unfitness. The only index of fitness is what her boss thinks. “Was Gen. Flynn the right pick?” Lauer asked. Conway gave the only answer she could comprehend: “The president chose him, and he was very loyal.”
4. Trump’s secrets are as sacred as the country’s secrets. Conway refused to tell Stephanopoulos what anyone in Trump’s circle had known about Flynn’s calls: “I can’t reveal what the White House knew or didn’t know, and who in White House knew or didn’t know.” Stephanopoulos responded with dismay:
Three weeks ago, the Justice Department told the White House that Gen. Flynn was misleading the vice president, was misleading the public, about his contacts with the Russians. You had that information. The White House had that information, chose to keep Gen. Flynn in his job, chose not to correct the record, chose not to tell the public what they knew about Gen. Flynn’s phone calls. How could that be?
Conway stiffed the question. “I’m not here to say who knew what when, because first of all, that would be divulging information that is highly sensitive,” she said. Highly sensitive? That’s a phrase reserved for protecting national security, which in this case was jeopardized by Flynn’s back-channel contacts and his deception about them. But Conway can’t tell the difference. To her, anything that threatens Trump, including exposure of collusion with Russia, must be squelched as a threat to the United States.
By afternoon, the White House had come up with yet another story. Conway’s spin on Monday (that Flynn still had Trump’s confidence) and her spin on Tuesday morning (that Flynn had lost Trump’s confidence but was still a stand-up guy) had been replaced by a third account from Press Secretary Sean Spicer: that Trump had been “reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to Gen. Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth.” The tale of Trump’s heroism in standing by Flynn had evolved into a tale of Trump’s heroism in investigating Flynn. Maybe Conway will tell this story in her next round of interviews. Or maybe, by then, she’ll have come up with another.
Only one thing stays constant in Conway’s propaganda: Trump is the hero. The pathologies she demonstrated on Tuesday have infected the entire White House. They consumed Trump and his aides during the campaign, and they have driven the administration’s conduct in office. On every principle—loyalty, secrecy, truth, right and wrong—Trump’s circle acknowledges only one standard and one master: Trump. That’s why the catastrophe of this administration won’t end with Flynn’s departure, or even with an investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia. It will end only when Trump is impeached and convicted.