President Donald Trump has just set the all-time speed record for scandal – from zero to Watergate in 25 days.
Not yet four weeks into the new administration, Washington has already revived a favorite parlor game based on Howard Baker’s famous question in the Nixon era.
“What did President Trump know, and when did he know it?” asked conservative Max Boot.
“What did President Trump know and when did he know it?” asked liberal Joan Walsh.
The Boston Globe, the Daily Mail, the Chicago Tribune and others asked variations of the same.
It’s a have-you-stopped-beating-your-wife question, because there is no good answer. If Trump only just found out that Michael Flynn spoke to the Russians about sanctions, he’s a dupe. If Trump knew earlier, he’s been hiding something.
But the “What Did He Know?” game in this case may ask the wrong question. The real question is not when Trump found out but whether Flynn, in his contacts with the ambassador, was doing Trump’s bidding, at least implicitly. This would fit a pattern that has already developed in this White House: Trump’s aides do exactly as he orders.
Flynn is no idiot. He spent a good chunk of his career in the intelligence business. He had to know that U.S. spy agencies listen to the Russian ambassador’s phone calls – and he’s savvy enough to know that his discussions with the ambassador about sanctions the Obama administration was imposing that day would make their way up the reporting chain. Finally, he had to know he couldn’t pass it off as a casual contact; the two spoke several times that day.
So why do it? Perhaps for the same reason other smart people who work for Trump have done seemingly unwise things: Trump told them to.
Sean Spicer is a seasoned pro, deeply experienced with the press. So why would he, in his first full day on the job, destroy his credibility by berating reporters in the briefing room and peddling the bogus claim that Trump’s inauguration crowd set a record? An explanation soon emerged: Trump himself had directed Spicer to do it.
Likewise, Kellyanne Conway, an old political hand, had to know she was breaking rules when she gave what she called a “free commercial” last week on Fox News for Ivanka Trump’s fashion line: “Go buy it today, everybody.” A bipartisan smackdown came swiftly and Spicer said she had been “counseled.” Why do it?
Well, consider that the day after Conway’s supposed transgression, she tweeted an Associated Press report saying Trump had defended Conway to White House staffers, saying Spicer’s “counseled” rebuke was “unfair to Conway,” who was “merely sticking up” for Ivanka.
Next came Stephen Miller, the young Trump White House policy adviser who went on four Sunday talk shows and was widely pilloried for uttering extravagant untruths about voter fraud and for his attempt to assign absolute power to Trump. But when the performance was done, the president made clear Miller had done as Trump wanted, tweeting: “Congratulations Stephen Miller – on representing me this morning on the various Sunday morning shows. Great job!”
In Flynn’s case, if he were freelancing with the Russians, Trump would justifiably be furious about the embarrassment and distraction it has caused. Trump never hesitates to attack those he thinks have wronged him. But the day after Flynn’s calls to the ambassador, Russia made an unusual decision: It would not take the usual course of retaliating against the Obama administration’s sanctions. And Trump tweeted his pleasure: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
Since then, Trump has uttered nary a word of criticism of Flynn. On Wednesday, he called Flynn “a wonderful man” who has “been treated very, very unfairly by the media.”
No surprise here: Flynn’s talks with the ambassador, Vladimir Putin’s subsequent decision to postpone retaliation, and Trump’s applause for that decision are consistent with Trump’s long-standing words and actions – selling property to the Russians; declining to release tax returns that could indicate whether Russians hold any of his debt; his early musings about Ukraine and NATO that have been more friendly to Moscow; his reluctance to criticize Putin’s human-rights abuses or to acknowledge Russia’s intervention to help him win the election; his surrounding himself with men – Paul Manafort, Carter Page, Roger Stone and Flynn – with ties to Moscow; and, now, confirmation of frequent contact between Russian intelligence and Trump’s campaign.
Asking what Trump knew when, then, misses the more important question: Was Flynn acting under Trump’s instructions?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.