The chaos of the early days of the Trump administration gave way on Tuesday to a Watergate-era query of an unfolding Washington scandal: What did the president know, and when did he know it?
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, already a familiar daytime figure and instant “Saturday Night Live” classic, tried to put that question to rest at the outset of his briefing, the first since the resignation of President Trump’s national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Spicer told reporters that Trump was informed on Jan. 26 that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about the nature of his pre-inauguration conversation with the Russian ambassador, failing to disclose that they had talked about sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. But Trump waited until Monday to ask for Flynn’s resignation because an “evolving and eroding level of trust.”
Spicer insisted that they “got to a point not based on a legal issue, but a trust issue,” an effort to dismiss concerns that Flynn’s conversations with a Russian representative may have violated the law — as well as wonderment at why Trump didn’t act sooner to dismiss him.
At the press briefing, Spicer got a few non-Flynn questions from Skype callers. He denied that the White House was keeping a dossier on reporters, despite claims that Omarosa Manigault said that there was such file-keeping. He brought in Steven Mnuchin, the new treasury secretary to talk about Venezuelan drug smuggling.
But the reason that all three cable networks covered the briefing was for the unfolding story of the Flynn resignation — one that isn’t going away anytime soon. Democrats and even some Republicans on Capitol Hill are calling for further investigation.
As insistent as Spicer was that Flynn’s dismissal was a “matter of trust,” it’s hardly resolved lingering questions from the news media, in an event that seems to have been triggered because of dogged reporting from the Washington Post other outlets.
On Friday, Trump was questioned about those reports that Flynn had, indeed, had conversations with the Russians about the sanctions despite denying it earlier.
“I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it,” he said.
In fact, according to Spicer’s account, Trump may not have been aware of the Washington Post report, but he was aware of issues with Flynn and what he discussed with the Russian ambassador.
There is also the role of Kellyanne Conway, one of the most visible of all administration officials on TV, and why she would say that Flynn had Trump’s full support on Monday afternoon, only to lose it just hours later.
And Conway and other unnamed White House officials had said that Flynn made the decision to resign on his own, but Spicer said on Tuesday that it was Trump who made the call, “You’re fired.”
Spicer insisted that there was an “exhaustive review” of Flynn’s conversations. Quoting Charles Krauthammer, the columnist and Fox News contributor, he contended that White House Counsel Don McGahn rather quickly concluded that there were no legal issues at stake — just the trust ones.
There has been a dizzying and even disorienting array of stories to chew on in the 25 days since Trump was sworn in, but the Flynn resignation and its aftermath has given the media a focus. All it needs now is a name.