Despite still being less than a month old, Donald Trump’s administration has found itself embroiled in two growing scandals, one being investigated by the FBI and the other to possibly be probed by an ethics watchdog.
After the weekend resignation of national security advisor, Michael Flynn, The New York Times has reported that other members of the President’s election campaign team had contacts with Russian intelligence officials.
Flynn was forced to step down after it emerged he misled the Vice President about the contents of a call with the Russian ambassador in December.
He is alleged to have discussed sanctions as a private citizen, something that is illegal under US law.
The Times now reports that intercepted phone calls show the Russians made contact with Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign chairman.
In late August, Manafort resigned from that job after disclosures by The Associated Press about his firm’s covert lobbying on behalf of Ukraine’s former pro-Russia governing party.
Current and former US officials interviewed by the Times declined to identify other Trump associates contacted by the Russians.
The anonymous officials told the Times they found no evidence that the Trump campaign was working with the Russians on hacking or other efforts to influence the election, reports the Associated Press.
Trump tweeted on Wednesday morning in response to the allegations:
He then went further and implied his own intelligence agencies were acting like Russia’s.
The President has had a rocky relationship with US intelligence with revelations earlier in the week that they are so concerned about the White House’s ties to the Kremlin and the fact Trump has been so dismissive of briefings, they’ve essentially stopped sending top-secret information.
The New York Observer wrote:
...some of our spy agencies have begun withholding intelligence from the Oval Office. Why risk your most sensitive information if the president may ignore it anyway? A senior National Security Agency official explained that NSA was systematically holding back some of the “good stuff” from the White House, in an unprecedented move. For decades, NSA has prepared special reports for the president’s eyes only, containing enormously sensitive intelligence. In the last three weeks, however, NSA has ceased doing this, fearing Trump and his staff cannot keep their best SIGINT secrets.
Questions have also been raised about when Trump was informed of the call that led to Flynn’s resignation with White House officials saying he knew just six days into his presidency, yet still backed him despite Flynn being at risk of blackmail from the Kremlin.
The FBI continues to sift through call logs and intercepted communications links between Trump’s associates and the Russian government, as well as the hacking of the Democratic National Committee which led to the leak of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
In an interview on Tuesday, Trump advisor, Kellyanne Conway, said it was the misleading of the Vice President and not that actual call that led to Flynn’s resignation.
This appeared to imply the national security advisor would have kept his job had he not stood down, simply because the President is “extremely loyal”.
Trump himself tried to deflect attention away from Flynn’s resignation by tweeting:
The second scandal involves Conway herself as the US government’s ethics watchdog urged the White House to investigate and possibly discipline her for comments she made about Ivanka Trump’s fashion line.
The Office of Government Ethics wrote to White House attorneys that there was reason to believe that Conway violated the standards of ethical conduct for executive employees by endorsing the president’s daughter’s products during a television interview last week.
Appearing from the White House briefing room, Conway urged viewers to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff” before adding that she was going to “give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody, you can find it online”.
The White House shakeup marks another jarring setback for a new administration already dealing with tensions among top aides and a legal fight over the president’s travel ban order.
Flynn’s firing also heightened questions about the President’s friendly posture toward Russia. Democrats called for investigations into Flynn’s contacts, and Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Congress needed to know whether he had been acting with direction from the president or others.
Trump initially thought Flynn could survive the controversy, according to a person with direct knowledge of the president’s views, but a pair of explosive stories in The Washington Post in recent days made the situation untenable.
As early as last week, he and aides began making contingency plans for Flynn’s dismissal, a senior administration official said. While the president was said to be upset with Flynn, he also expressed anger with other aides for “losing control” of the story and making his young administration look bad.