Ben Roback is a Senior Account Executive at Cicero Group and a member of the US Embassy’s Young Leader’s UK programme.
This was supposed to be the first ‘normal’ week of the Trump presidency. Golf and bilateral talks with foreign leaders. A meeting with CEOs to discuss women in the workforce. Senate confirmations for Steven Mnuchin (Treasury), Jeff Sessions (Attorney General) and David Shulkin (Veterans Affairs). It was all looking terribly, well, Presidential.
From Russia with love
But just as the White House had discovered its new normal, a major resignation sprung 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue into life. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s national security adviser, resigned from his post after just 24 days.
In his resignation letter, Flynn blamed his “inadvertent briefing” of Vice President Mike Pence on the “fast pace of events” during the transition period. Under the Logan Act, it is illegal for private citizens to conduct US diplomacy.
Given widespread concern about the links between Trump and Russia, the optics for the White House have the potential to be toxic, confirming existing concerns about Trump’s openness towards Vladimir Putin. The true test now will be how quickly the White House can stop the bleeding, while avoiding the big question: what did the President know about this and when did he know it?
The Flynn resignation has provided a point-scoring opportunity for the opposition. Taking to social media to build moment behind #FireFlynn, Democrats from the grass roots all the way up to the Senate minority leadership will feel they have played a significant role in the toppling of a senior adviser to the President.
In reality, Flynn owes his departure to a lack of due diligence and no number of hashtags or tweets. Seizing the political momentum, John Conyers Jr and Elijah Cummings – the ranking members of the Judiciary and Oversight committees – have called for a classified briefing for Congress regarding the resignation. House Democrats have called on Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz to launch an investigation. Republican Senator Roy Blunt has issued a call for an exhaustive investigation led by the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee on which he sits. In the background, the House Intelligence Committee’s investigation into connections between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin remains ongoing.
The political implications for Republicans matter as well as the optics for Democrats. Republican lawmakers who don’t back Trump but have supported his agenda so far, though limited legislatively to votes approving Cabinet appointees, now have a real window of opportunity for opposition. As these scandals grow, there will be increased calls from emboldened lawmakers on both sides of the aisle for the kind of congressional investigations that have the capacity to cause serious political and reputational damage for Trump and the White House.
For the news media berated on a daily basis by the president, there is a renewed sense of purpose: journalism lives, and digging deep into controversial issues leads to the uncovering of otherwise hidden facts.
The White House door keeps revolving: Ones to watch
Too many of Trump’s top team have been in the spotlight for the wrong reasons recently. With a transactional approach to business rooted in decades of deal-making, President Trump will have no reservations about reshuffling his top team in the manner that would make a ‘traditional’ politician fear headlines about the implications of a staff shake-up. The following could soon be joining Michael Flynn as White House alumni:
Kellyanne Conway: The Counselor to the President may have inadvertently violated the standard of conduct of government ethics for a federal employee. Commenting on Fox & Friends after Nordstrom announced it would no longer sell Ivanka Trump-branded products, Conway urged viewers “go buy Ivanka’s stuff”. Rebuked in private by the White House, the spotlight shone on the administration’s patchy reputation on business ethics could force Conway into quitting her position as part of an attempted ethical fresh start.
Sean Spicer: The White House Press Secretary has struggled with the pace of pool briefings and often muddles his words with mixed delivery. Much to the chagrin of a White House that obsesses over optics and delivery, Spicer has become the primary focus of Melissa McCarthy’s performances on SNL. A replacement could soon be called in to reset to the White House’s public façade, with Spicer being reduced to one of Press Secretary or Communications Director, the dual role that he has struggled to balance so far.
Reince Preibus – Failing to keep endless leaks under control and the chaotic rollout of the immigration executive order have fallen almost squarely at the foot of the president’s Chief of Staff. An internal battle is said to rage on between Preibus and Steve Bannon for control of the White House agenda, with the president more loyal to Bannon and his projection of US foreign policy than Preibus and his ties to the establishment GOP.
Making changes before addressing Congress
The White House appeared to have plugged its chronic leaks and boosted the professionalisation of an office dominated by those with little executive experience. Trump must now reign in an operation that finds itself in another major self-enforced predicament. The president’s address to a joint session of Congress, scheduled for 28th February, is a key date by which the administration will want to complete any kind of reshuffle that extends beyond the recently disposed Flynn.