Not long ago the idea that the US national security adviser had been compromised by the Russians would have been the stuff of airport thrillers and TV mini-series. The Trump White House has made it the new normal.
The firmest conclusion to emerge from the latest testimony on Capitol Hill is that the White House knew for 18 days its national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow because he had lied about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
The White House counsel, Don McGahn, had been told clearly by the acting attorney general, Sally Yates, about this extraordinary situation on 26 January. She requested an urgent face-to-face meeting in the White House, then came back the next day to press home the seriousness of the situation. But Donald Trump and his administration continued to stand by Flynn.
There is no evidence Flynn was excluded from top secret meetings in this period. He was operating on a routine renewal of a security clearance given to retired officers every five years. He was never given the far more stringent vetting reserved for someone in a sensitive White House position like national security adviser.
It was only late at night on 13 February, four days after the facts of Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador had been published in the Washington Post, that he was forced to resign. Even then Trump portrayed him as “a wonderful man” and hapless victim of “fake media”.
Trump has sought to shrug off the weighty cloak of suspicion around his presidency as the product of “fake news” and sour grapes from the defeated party. But he was clearly watching Monday’s hearing of the Senate judiciary sub-committee closely – and heckling from Twitter.
Before Yates arrived on Capitol Hill he was urging the panel to ask about leaks. It did, and she denied ever having leaked in her career. At the end of the hearing Trump pointed to the testimony of James Clapper, the former director of national intelligence, claiming that Clapper had “reiterated what everybody, including the fake media already knows – there is ‘no evidence’ of collusion with Russia and Trump”. The president incorporated that judgment into his Twitter profile picture, in effect making it his recurrent daily message, a measure of how seriously he takes these hearings as a threat to his legitimacy.
However, that is not quite what Clapper said. The retired master-spy was asked about an interview he had given in March, when he said there was no evidence of collusion between the Trump camp and Russia by the time he left his post on 20 January. He was asked if that was still accurate. “It is,” he said.
But the statement comes with a substantial caveat. Clapper had already said in his opening remarks that he had not been aware of an FBI counter-intelligence investigation into Trump-Russia ties, which had been going on since July 2016. This may not have been included in an intelligence summary on Russian interference compiled by the time Clapper left, simply because it had not been finished.
The fact that the FBI did not even tell the intelligence chief about its investigation is probably bad news for Flynn and the White House, as it underlines the seriousness of the issue, and makes it more likely rather than less that it could ultimately lead to prosecution.
Clapper has a record of being a somewhat slippery witness at such hearings. In 2013 he gave misleading testimony on NSA mass surveillance, saying later that he had provided a Senate committee the “least untruthful” version of reality he could.
On Monday he seemed to give conflicting answers to the same question within a few minutes. He was asked about a Guardian report in April saying the US had first been tipped off to contacts between the Trump campaign and Moscow by British intelligence in late 2015, and then by other western agencies in 2016. Clapper was asked if that was still accurate.
“Yes, it is and it’s also quite sensitive,” he said. “The specifics are … quite sensitive.”
It seemed a clear statement, and one that would contradict his earlier assertions there was no evidence of collusion. He later wavered on the issue, when pressed on what his intelligence establishment had done in response to such warnings from abroad.
“Well I’m not sure about the accuracy of that article, so clearly over actually going back to 2015, there was evidence of Soviet, excuse me, Freudian slip, Russian activity,” he said. “Mainly in an information gathering or recon ordering mode, where they were investigating voter registration rolls and the like.”
When Yates was asked about the investigations into collusion with Russia, she declined to comment, and when pressed about Clapper’s seemingly definitive answer she simply pointed to his admission that he had been ignorant about the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation.
Faced with incontrovertible evidence of a shocking lapse in the White House, almost all the Republican questions on Monday were about leaks and immigration. For that to change, Flynn or another close aide would have to point the finger of blame for collusion at Trump himself. Such a turning point did not arrive on Monday, but nor did it seem unthinkable.
For an administration that has normalised the sloppy handling of security matters and glaring conflicts of interests, only stark evidence of deliberate conspiracy with Moscow to skew the election is likely to do any lasting damage. Unless and until that moment arrives, the Republican party is determined to look the other way.