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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

To see Michael Flynn depart his White House post in a miasma of misconduct — amid memories of his “lock her up” bluster about Hillary Clinton at the Republican convention last summer — was satisfying. To hear that he might be replaced as national security adviser by someone saner is reassuring.

But Flynn’s ouster is only the first chapter in a potentially historic scandal that has scarcely begun to unfold. The contradictory accounts and explanations offered by presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway, press secretary Sean Spicer, and others around Donald Trump left crucial questions unanswered.

According to the most plausible version, Sally Q. Yates, then the acting attorney general, informed the White House counsel’s office in late January about NSA intercepts of conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Transcripts showed that contrary to public assertions by Flynn — bolstered by Vice President Mike Pence — the retired general and Trump campaign adviser had discussed with the ambassador the possibility of lifting sanctions imposed on Russia by President Obama. Accompanied by a Justice Department national security official, Yates told White House counsel Don McGahn that they feared Flynn might be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.

The same day, McGahn informed Trump and senior aides about Yates’ concerns. But the president did nothing to contain or curtail Flynn for more than two weeks — until he requested the national security adviser’s resignation on February 13. At the next day’s press briefing, Spicer said that the “erosion of trust,” rather than any actual wrongdoing, had forced Flynn’s removal.

What Flynn did exactly, and under whose auspices, are important questions that must be answered publicly. While he may not have incurred criminal liability by lying to the vice president, he could be in trouble if he lied to the FBI — which is investigating the Russian entanglements of Flynn and others. Eventually, he may have to testify before Congress under a grant of immunity. In the meantime, Trump could easily declassify transcripts of Flynn’s “perfectly normal” conversations with Kislyak — both before and after Election Day.

Yet instead of acting to reassure the public, Trump is complaining about “leaks” from U.S. intelligence services. Such whining ill befits a man who urged the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and then repeatedly celebrated the Wikileaks exposure of stolen Democratic email files. Besides, it is now obvious that Trump would have done nothing about Flynn, the “kompromat” national security adviser, had the leaks not exposed this dangerous situation.

Beyond Flynn’s dubious conduct, however, and the Trump White House attempt to cover it up, an even deeper problem is festering. The allegations in the controversial dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele are increasingly plausible, even if still “unconfirmed” — supported by independent reporting and circumstantial evidence. Steele’s investigation allegedly uncovered a web of clandestine and illicit connections between Trump, his associates and campaign staff, and Russian government and corporate entities close to President Vladimir Putin — and the dossier included copious details, including specific plans, conversations, and relationships.

Now, as politicians of both parties recognize the imperative to investigate the Russia connection, the Steele dossier will provide a roadmap.

Just last week, CNN reported that U.S. intelligence officials have confirmed — based on American communications intercepts — that some conversations among Russian officials and others occurred exactly as described in the dossier. Those findings have  “given US intelligence and law enforcement ‘greater confidence’ in the credibility of some aspects of the dossier.”

The Steele dossier also described an enormous proposed payoff by the Russians to Trump and his associates, who were to receive 19 percent of Rosneft, the state-owned Russian energy firm, in exchange for guaranteeing the end of US sanctions under a Trump presidency. Then at the end of last year, an unprecedented deal involving Rosneft shares actually occurred — when Russia privatized 19.5 percent of Rosneft under mysterious circumstances.

The supposed buyers were Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund and Glencore, a huge resources company (founded, ironically enough, Marc Rich, the late trader whose pardon by President Bill Clinton in 2001 provoked a furor). According to Reuters, the true buyers of the Rosneft shares remain unknown, hidden behind a series of shell companies in the Cayman Islands. Such a hidden selloff of public property is mind-boggling — and deeply suspicious.

Nothing has been proved yet except that Flynn is a liar, and that Trump’s crazed and chaotic White House failed to discipline him until there was no other choice. Now the Republicans who knew Trump was unfit to serve will have to rein in this perilous presidency. Had they only put country above party last year, they — and we — would not be facing this crisis.