The Slatest

What Is the NYT Implying When It Suggests Donald Trump Lied About Michael Flynn’s Resignation?

Flynn, wearing a suit, looks downward.
Michael Flynn outside federal court in Washington, D.C. on Dec. 18, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The New York Times put out a big story Tuesday reviewing two years of obstruction-y behavior by Donald Trump toward the Justice Department. Some of the material seems quite incriminating, including a description of a not-previously-reported incident in which Trump allegedly tried to get the U.S. attorney he’d appointed to run New York’s Southern District to un-recuse himself from an investigation of attorney Michael Cohen in which the president was implicated. One of the story’s other big scenes, though, is a description of the fallout from national security adviser Michael Flynn’s resignation, and it’s presented as if it includes some sort of smoking gun … except that neither I nor seemingly anyone else who’s read the story can figure out exactly what part of it is supposed to be the smoke or the gun.

Here’s the section at issue:

It was Feb. 14, 2017, and Mr. Trump and his advisers were in the Oval Office debating how to explain the resignation of Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, the previous night. Mr. Flynn, who had been a top campaign adviser to Mr. Trump, was under investigation by the F.B.I. for his contacts with Russians and secret foreign lobbying efforts for Turkey.

The Justice Department had already raised questions that Mr. Flynn might be subject to blackmail by the Russians for misleading White House officials about the Russian contacts, and inside the White House there was a palpable fear that the Russia investigation could consume the early months of a new administration.

As the group in the Oval Office talked, one of Mr. Trump’s advisers mentioned in passing what then-Speaker Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin had told reporters — that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. Flynn to resign.

It was unclear where Mr. Ryan had gotten that information, but Mr. Trump seized on Mr. Ryan’s words. “That sounds better,” the president said, according to people with knowledge of the discussions. Mr. Trump turned to the White House press secretary at the time, Sean Spicer, who was preparing to brief the media.

“Say that,” Mr. Trump ordered.

But was that true, Mr. Spicer pressed.

“Say that I asked for his resignation,” Mr. Trump repeated.

The president appeared to have little concern about what he told the public about Mr. Flynn’s departure, and quickly warmed to the new narrative. 

Incidentally, the idea that Sean Spicer would worry about whether something was true before he said it on television seems farfetched, but maybe he was having a weird day. The bigger issue, though, is the Times’ implication that before this daytime Feb. 14 meeting, no one would have had reason to think that Flynn had been asked to resign—and that such a narrative might not be true.

One reason that’s confusing is that the Times itself reported within hours of Flynn’s late-night Feb. 13 resignation that he had stepped down because the White House told him to. As the news-archive site NewsDiffs documents, an NYTimes.com post about Flynn was updated at some time around 1 a.m. on Feb. 14—i.e. before the meeting described in Tuesday’s piece—to say that then-White House adviser Steve Bannon had asked Flynn to resign, which presumably happened with Trump’s approval because Bannon wouldn’t have had the authority to do so otherwise:

Mr. Trump … had become increasingly concerned about the continued fallout over Mr. Flynn’s behavior, according to people familiar with his thinking, and told aides that the media storm around Mr. Flynn would damage the president’s image on national security issues.

Stephen K. Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, asked for Mr. Flynn’s resignation — a move that he has been pushing for since Friday, when it became clear that the national security adviser had misled Mr. Pence.

This week’s Times story, then, suggests there was something sneaky and surprising about Trump saying during the day on Feb. 14 that he’d asked Flynn to resign—despite the Times itself having reported more or less that exact thing hours earlier in a story that’s still up on its website without any correction or qualification.

What makes the Times account even odder is that it doesn’t mention the most prominently unresolved aspect of the Flynn resignation story, which is that the White House claimed (from the start, on the night of Feb. 13) that Flynn had stepped down because he’d gotten caught lying to Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about whether he’d discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn had indeed discussed sanctions with Kislyak in a phone conversation during the presidential transition period, which acting national security officials flagged as suspicious when they found out about the discussion because they were intercepting Kislyak’s communications. But it turns out—as the Times and others have reported—that numerous top Trump advisers knew as soon as the day of Flynn and Kislyak’s conversation that they had talked about sanctions. Which undermines the White House’s position that Flynn was pushed out for having covered up the conversation and suggests that maybe he was set up as a fall guy in a (failed) effort to keep investigators and reporters from trying to determine whether the outreach to Kislyak was part of a larger sanctions-related quid pro quo between Trump and Russia.

In other words, Trump does seem to have promoted a misleading narrative about Flynn’s departure from the White House—but not one that has anything to do with who in particular asked him to resign, and not one that is mentioned at all in today’s big report about the ways Trump has undermined the Russia investigation.

So what’s going on? What does it all mean? Well, I have no idea! I’ve asked the Times reporters who wrote the story for clarification, but they haven’t responded. And if you can figure it out yourself, I’m on Twitter.