The Michael Flynn situation is bad. Really bad.
This post will outline Paul Ryan’s game theory on whether to investigate the Flynn situation further and the implications on the Republican party.
Vox provides a good summary of the facts. Here’s the quick version:
1. In December, during the transition, Flynn had conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US. Flynn told Russia that Obama’s Russian sanctions — the sanctions for interfering with the US election — would be revisited.
2. The NSA has for a long time eavesdropped on phone calls with foreign ministers. Flynn never tried to claim ignorance about or illegality of the NSA’s surveillance mandate.
3. Private citizens cannot negotiate with foreign ambassadors. This is a federal national security law.
4. You could argue the negotiations themselves weren’t that big of a deal. That’s probably true, but it doesn’t matter. The Russians knew that Flynn violated a major national security law. The Russians could have used this to blackmail him. Democrats and Republicans alike are outraged because Flynn voluntarily put himself in this situation.
5. In January, VP Mike Pence asked Flynn about his phone calls with the Russians, and Flynn assured Pence that Flynn didn’t break the law. As more information leaked and the press demanded answers, Pence told the press that all phone calls were lawful.
6. About 3 weeks ago, then Attorney General Sally Yates informed the White House that Flynn had violated national security laws.
7. About 1 week ago, Trump was asked about the situation and claimed 100% ignorance.
8. The Washington Post finally verified all of the details as information continued to leak, and hours after reporting the whole story, Flynn resigned Monday night February 13th.
9. Just hours before Flynn resigned, Trump’s senior advisor, Kellyanne Conway, was on national TV saying that Flynn had the full faith and confidence of the President.
Moreover, Flynn is the 3rd senior Trump aide with close ties to Russia to lose his job over Russian ties. The others, Paul Manafort and Carter Page, stepped down during the campaign. At this point, it’s impossible to argue that Trump’s team hasn’t been in active conversations with Russians for months, perhaps years. Since US intelligence agencies have universally condemned Russia for years — long before the 2016 election — Democrats are rightfully calling for substantial investigations.
Even if you don’t believe all of the above to be true, or that it’s exaggerated, or overblown, Flynn’s resignation is an admission of guilt, and a gauge for the magnitude of the situation. Why else would he resign after 3 weeks on the job? He knew he was done for, and decided not to drag out the fight.
So the question is, what should Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House, do? Broadly speaking, he has three options:
1. Openly condemn Trump, start a rigorous investigation, and fan the flames.
2. Say lots of nice things about Trump, that Trump is great, that there’s some law or technicality that says Congress must investigate these sorts of matters as a standard practice, and that he’s sure the outcome of the investigation will be benign.
3. Say that there’s nothing to worry about, choose not to start an investigation, say as little as possible, move on, and tell everyone to focus on the traditional Republican agenda.
Ryan chose #3.
His decision signals that he’s concerned about the outcome of the investigation and the impact the Republican party. Indeed, the outcome could be catastrophic.
So how bad can “bad” be in practice?
Let’s map out a scale of bad things that could happen, from worst to best, for Republicans:
(Note that the House can impeach the President with a simple majority, but the Senate requires 2/3 to remove the President from office. Currently Republicans control the House 239–193 and theSenate is 52–48.)
1. The investigation definitively concludes Trump and the administration broke multiple national security laws, and Republicans in both houses of Congress cave and impeach and remove Trump from office. Although Ryan surely prefers Pence in the White House over Trump, this move would likely rip the Republican party in half or perhaps a 1/3–2/3 split between Trump’s base and mainstream Republicans. This would be an unmitigated disaster for Republicans. It could take a decade to recover. This situation is extremely unlikely though. Congressional Republicans have repeatedly demonstrated that they are ok with Trump’s constitutional violations (see the Emoluments clause of the Constitution). It feels inconceivable today that 19 Republican Senators would cave.
2. The investigation definitively concludes Trump and the administration broke multiple national security laws, and the House impeaches Trump, but the Senate doesn’t remove him from office since the 2/3 barrier is so high. Democrats, in a state of fury, would likely show up in unprecedented numbers for 2018 midterm elections and take both houses of Congress with significant majorities, but almost certainly not 2/3 in the Senate (only 1/3 of the Senate is up for reelection in 2018). Democrats in Congress would immediately try to remove Trump in 2019 for any number of constitutional violations. Even if Democrats get to 60 in the Senate in 2018, Republicans could still comfortably block a Trump removal, and likely would to maintain party unity. Democrats would investigate Trump incessantly in 2019 and 2020 and likely find more wrongdoing, but probably not enough to break Republican ranks. In an unlikely but bizarrely best case scenario, this could even create a window for another Republican Presidential candidate in 2020.
3. The investigation definitively concludes Trump and the administration broke multiple national security laws, but Ryan chooses not to impeach Trump. Although the pressure on Ryan would be immense, he’s already signaled that he’s ok with Trump violating the Constitution. The net outcome would look a lot like #2 as Democrats go to the polls in 2018 in a state of fury.
4. Ryan simply chooses not to investigate, probably loses control of Congress in 2018 because of Trump’s erratic behavior and Republican’s already slim control of both houses. Democrats stonewall Trump for 2019 and 2020, but the Republican party escapes relatively unscathed. They recognize their present opportunity is unique and try to push through as much as of their agenda as possible before 2019.
5. The situation turns out to be completely benign, and Trump and Republicans stick it to Democrats for being trigger happy with not-fully substantiated allegations.
Ryan thinks he has a real shot at #4. I do too. But even if #4 doesn’t happen, the next most likely are #3 and #2, which are bad but not terrible outcomes for Republicans.