The Trump administration is facing a fresh crisis this week, with the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn, following a series of leaks establishing that he held discussions with the Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, in December last year, concerning the possibility of ending sanctions against Russia put in place by Barack Obama.

Flynn resigned after leaks to, well, everyone — but mainly The Washington Post and The New York Times — made clear that Flynn had had phone discussions with the Russian ambassador to the US in December last year, urging Russia not to retaliate against the sanctions Obama had put in place, following accusations/revelations that Russian agencies were behind the hacking of the emails of the Democrats.

Flynn wasn’t a government official at the time, of course — he had merely been named by then-president-elect Trump as the guy he would put in charge of fighting global Islamism. And private citizens engaging in diplomatic negotiations with foreign powers is not only improper, it s actually illegal. The discussions were caught on “routine” wiretaps of diplomatic calls, a detail that appears to have passed without much comment.

That Flynn and Kislyak had been in conversation came out in January, with accusations that Flynn had intimated that the Obama-created sanctions would be eased or lifted if Russia didn’t respond in kind. Vice-President Mike Pence was quizzed about it and denied that had occurred. Pence now says that Flynn lied to him about the conversations.

Five days ago, Trump, questioned about the issue, said he didn’t know anything about it and was “studying it”. Later the White House said they had known for weeks that Flynn had lied about the contents of the conversation.

Then, Flynn resigned so fast that two members of the National Security Council heard about it on the news. The question now turns as to whether Flynn or the White House was lying — or both.

New administrations always have problems, and they always have confirmation problems — because every president has to hire an entire US government (or its top levels), and everyone lies to get the sweet gigs if they have to. When Bill Clinton came into power, his new administration was tripped up by the process of finding a new attorney-general, after two candidates in a row were revealed to have hired “illegal”/undocumented immigrants as nannies for their children. The practice was dead common at the time — less so now among people who think they have a shot at public office — and these hiccups were a first sign that confirmation processes would no longer be as bipartisan as they once were.

Flynn’s resignation is something else though, because he may have committed several felonies — negotiating with foreign powers, perjury among them — and because the Trump administration’s tie-up with the Putin regime is becoming too visible and creepy for even his most die-hard supporters to ignore.

In that respect, many progressives are seeing the whole multibranching saga is less a parallel to the early Clinton years than it is to Watergate — a crime that occurred before the 1972 election, and the investigation of which carried on after it, ultimately leading to the resignation of president Richard Nixon, and the conviction and jailing of a score of his staff — as David Salter also points out in Crikey today.

Watergate had occurred because Nixon and his henchman had put in place an autonomous team to conduct political espionage and dirty tricks against the leading Democratic contenders in the 1972 Democratic primaries — since Nixon’s victory in 1968 had been wafer thin, and he was not confident of a second term against a centrist Democrat.

His “dirty tricks” operatives appear to have undermined the campaign of frontrunner Edmund Muskie, and thus helped clear the way for left candidate George McGovern to take the nomination — and lose the election by 49 states.

When six burglars were caught breaking into the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex, they turned out to be right-wing anti-Castro Cuban activists, one of them having in the diary on his person, the phone number of Howard Hunt — a former spy, then head of Nixon’s dirty tricks operation. It all began to unravel from there.

[Get realist: beyond the Putin-Trump bromance]

Today, the links between Trump’s outfit and Russian politics and capital is undisputed. Trump is in hock to Russian banks and financiers for hundreds of millions (no US banks will lend to him); his former campaign chief of staff-turned-adviser Paul Manafort had links to the pro-Russian forces in the Ukraine through his political consultancy, and had the Republican Party platform on Ukraine altered to be more pro-Russian. Perhaps most importantly, the Breitbart nationalist right faction in the administration, headed by Steve Bannon, regard Russia and the Putin regime as an ally in the global culture war against liberal Western Europe and progressives at home.

That latter feature of Trump’s politics explains the apparent bizarre cognitive dissonance that occurred around Russia in US politics. For years, Barack Obama was slated for not confronting Putin in Syria — stare down the Russian bear, etc — in a reprise of Cold War politics. Once Trump appeared on the scene, many of his supporters simply passed through the portal of magical thinking, to see Trump’s talk of “deal-making” with Russia as practical and common-sense, while Obama’s increasingly stern rhetoric was constructed as inept and warmongering.

In other words, the position is not so dissonant after all; Trump’s supporters still want the projection of American power (though preferably in one of those easy wars, against St Kitts and Nevis or some such) but they approve of Putin’s Christian conservative cultural politics — rather more than they do Obama’s internationalist progressivism. Trump’s cosying up to Russia works, as I noted last year, because many conservatives see Russia as holding their “eternal” and “correct” values in trust for them, while the storm of progressivism passes through.

That means that it is very difficult to assess what sort of collusion between team Trump and the foreign power of Russia would actually cause his base to question their support of him. The character of the era is such that many of his supporters have gone “Vichy” — like the French who supported the Nazis and the German invasion of 1940, they believe themselves to have nothing in common with their left-wing co-citizens, and that true patriotism demands dallying with a foreign power, because the nation’s soul has already been threatened, and is danger of being lost altogether.

[Rundle: Americans fought a war against monarchist rule, now they welcome King Donald]

Put it this way, if tomorrow it emerges that Trump had called Putin and said “look if you want to land a missile on Pittsburgh, we wouldn’t object”, a lot of Trump’s supporters would say “well, Pittsburgh, y’know, apart from the Warhol Museum, I mean …”

So, yes, the Watergate parallels are there. Trouble is, the 1970s are not, and fond hopes that Trump will be brought down by the slow accretion of truth are not unwarranted, but nor are they likely.

Peter Fray

Fetch your first 12 weeks for $12

Here at Crikey, we saw a mighty surge in subscribers throughout 2020. Your support has been nothing short of amazing — we couldn’t have got through this year like no other without you, our readers.

If you haven’t joined us yet, fetch your first 12 weeks for $12 and start 2021 with the journalism you need to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW