In 1999, Yuri Skuratov, then Russia’s top prosecutor, was investigating corruption inside the Kremlin. Then, a grainy sex tape surfaced that showed a man who resembled Skuratov with two young women in a hotel room. After Russian TV aired the video, there was some debate over whether the man was actually Skuratov. A few weeks later, the head of the F.S.B., a former intelligence officer named Vladimir Putin, held a news conference and settled the issue: the naked man was indeed Skuratov. Skuratov resigned, and by the end of the year Putin was the Russian President.
The Skuratov tale is perhaps the most famous example of Russia’s use of kompromat—compromising material—partly because it was a crucial episode in Putin’s path to the Presidency but also because it was a rare moment when the material became public. The point of kompromat isn’t to release it but to use it to control the target. (The Kremlin originally showed Skuratov the material and tried to push him out, but the plan didn’t work.)
We now have our own kompromat scandal in the United States, the details of which became clearer yesterday after Sally Yates, the acting Attorney General for the first ten days of the Trump Administration, testified before a Senate judiciary subcommittee. The headlines were all about what Yates said about Michael Flynn, but the bigger scandal is about Donald Trump.
Senator Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, one of the few Republicans in Congress to express outrage both at Russian interference in our election and Trump’s lack of concern about the issue, chairs the committee. In his opening remarks, Graham called on the parties to form a NATO-like alliance, saying, “When a foreign power interferes in our election, it doesn’t matter who they targeted. We’re all in the same boat.”
The White House kompromat scandal has its roots in Trump’s refusal to take Russia’s hacking campaign seriously. In December, as the Obama White House crafted a response to Russia, it left Trump and his aides out of the process. On December 29th, Obama announced new economic sanctions against Russia and booted some three dozen Russian diplomats out of the country. Several senior Russian officials said publicly that Russia would respond with a proportionate action. That’s when Flynn, Trump’s incoming national-security adviser, sprang into action. He and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, spoke by phone, and the next day Putin announced he would take no action. Trump quickly celebrated the news in a tweet that he pinned to the top of his page: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
Flynn’s demise came quickly. On January 12th, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported that Flynn had discussed the Obama sanctions with the Russian Ambassador, a potential violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits citizens from interfering with American foreign policy. Flynn told top White House officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence, that he hadn’t discussed sanctions, and those officials repeated Flynn’s claims publicly.
The problem for Flynn was that his phone call with Kislyak had been recorded and that U.S. officials knew that he had lied to Pence. In her testimony yesterday, Yates revealed that she went to the White House counsel, Don McGahn, on January 26th, and told him that the Justice Department was worried about three issues related to Flynn’s actions. First, she said, it was concerned about “General Flynn’s underlying conduct,” the details of which she would not disclose. Second, the department thought “the Vice-President and others were entitled to know that the information they were conveying to the American public wasn’t true.” Third, the department explained that this offered the Russians kompromat. Yates told the committee that this created “a situation where the national-security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.” She added, “We told them that we were giving them all of this information so that they could take action, the action that they deemed appropriate.”
No action was taken until February 13th, when the Washington Post first reported Yates’s warning to the White House and Flynn was forced to resign.
Flynn may have bigger problems than the Logan Act. He received tens of thousands of dollars in income from Russia-related entities in 2015, but failed to report it on a standard financial-disclosure form for White House employees. He agreed to help Turkey improve its image in the U.S. last year, in exchange for a six-hundred-thousand-dollar contract, but he failed to register as a foreign agent, as required by law. Finally, he was interviewed by the F.B.I., which knew about the contents of his conversation with Kislyak, on January 24th, when he was still claiming that they hadn’t discussed sanctions. If he lied to the F.B.I., he could be indicted.
But the more important question raised by the Flynn scandal is about Trump. Back in December, Flynn and Trump seemed to be operating as a team with respect to Russian electoral interference and sanctions. Is it really possible that Trump didn’t know about Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, or that Flynn didn’t inform him about the details later? If Trump and Flynn were acting in coördination during the transition, which is what one would expect from a President-elect and his incoming national-security adviser, whatever worrisome “underlying conduct” Yates alluded to might implicate Trump as well as Flynn.
We do know that after Yates told the White House that Flynn had lied to Pence and others, Trump himself was informed about the matter, but the President never told Pence. (Pence reportedly learned about it from the Washington Post, like everyone else.)
Why didn’t Trump tell the Vice-President that he had been misled? Why didn’t Trump fire Flynn after being told that Flynn was compromised by Russian intelligence? Yates didn’t have answers to those questions yesterday, but her testimony made clear that the real scandal is not Flynn’s conduct but Trump’s.