Michael Flynn's resignation as national security adviser 24 days into the Trump administration has foreign policy advisers scrambling to make sense of the nation’s rapidly shifting position in the world.
Some saw it as likely to moderate the administration’s zeal for allowing fighting radical Islamic extremism to become the driver of U.S. policy – Flynn was a strident believer that the Islamic State and radical Islam are an existential threat to the West.
But the impact on U.S. relations with Russia might be even greater, with Flynn becoming the third Trump official to depart over his Russia ties.
Trump “will be more inclined to regard Russia as a threat,” said Mark F. Cancian, senior adviser at the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Flynn was one of Trump’s closest and longest-tenured confidants, joining the campaign in the early days of 2016, two months after he famously attended the gala of Russian broadcaster RT and was seated next to President Vladimir Putin. Until Tuesday, he had the ear of the president every day, often multiple times a day. His job entailed both briefing the president and coordinating with other national security officials in the administration.
Experts said his departure likely means more room to focus on other potential threats around the world, not just the Islamic State.
Nora Bensahel, distinguished scholar-in-residence at American University’s School of International Service, expects more attention on Iran, Russia and North Korea. The Islamic State will remain a very important national security issue, but, she said, it won’t be the “first one among equals.”
“It will be more seen by whoever succeeds Flynn as an important problem, but as a practical problem to be solved rather than an ideology which must fundamentally be addressed for the very survival of the United States,” Bensahel said.
Flynn is the third Trump adviser forced out over links to the Russian government of President Vladimir Putin. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, was first. Carter Page, an early foreign policy adviser to the campaign, also left amid scrutiny over his Russian ties.
But the Trump administration’s strident views on Islam aren’t likely to go away. Other senior Trump advisers, such as Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, are likely to continue to push an anti-Islam line.
As for Russia, the former officials named as likely successors, retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, who also headed the CIA, or retired Vice Adm. Bob Harward, a former Navy SEAL, wouldn’t be anyone’s candidate for being in the pocket of the Russians.
They also don’t share Flynn’s extreme views on Islam. Both recognize the issue is more complex than the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism” suggests, said Colin Kahl, a national security adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden and currently a professor at Georgetown University.
But Kahl said it still remains to be seen if a new national security adviser can reassert the traditional authority of the National Security Council.
“Will they actually be able to push that line?” Kahl said. “Or are they going to be boxed out by Bannon? Especially since Trump is pretty all in on the radical Islamic terrorism thing.”
Congress is already looking into Russian meddling in the United States political system. Several top Republicans expect the investigation to expand to include the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s departure.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee and Senate Republican leadership, said he expected Flynn to testify before Congress. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, told reporters Tuesday that Flynn’s departure should be handled as part of a broader investigation into Russia’s involvement in U.S. affairs.
“I believe the scope of that would cover anything that has to do with Russia and its involvement in, before, during and after, the election,” Rubio said. “I have full confidence that the intelligence committee is going to do a good job. If they don’t, I’ll let everyone know that we didn’t, but I believe that we can and I believe that we will.”
Rep. Mark Sanford, R-S.C., hopes the experience will cause the administration to be more circumspect with both formal and informal communications between governments.
“When I talk to people back home, one of their concerns is there’s been this Wild West, cowboy element in the way Trump will say anything to anybody at any time,” Sanford said. “And I think diplomacy is what the word suggests – there should be a level of diplomacy. So I think it’s perhaps a learning moment for the administration to make sure all the T’s are crossed and all the I’s are dotted in our engaging with foreign nations.”
on Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer dismissed any accusations that Trump was going easy on Russia. He emphasized that the president continues to raise the issue of Crimea, “which the previous administration allowed to be seized by Russia.”
“President Trump has made it very clear he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea,” Spicer said. “At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to be able to get along with Russia, unlike previous administrations, so that we can solve many problems together facing the world such as the threat of ISIS and terrorism.” ISIS is an acronym for he Islamic State.
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and current resident scholar at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said Flynn’s departure will open up a greater perspective on a range of threats from Iran to Russia and, perhaps, a better understanding of how they interlock and affect each other.
“We’re going to back into realm of reality with Russia,” Rubin said. “Every recent president, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, tried to have a reset with Russia. But love the policy or hate the policy, those policies were based on much more understood set of facts or parameters. The problem with Flynn is it seemed he was willing to believe all the sweet nothings that were whispered into his ear.”
Russian officials apparently agree. Reports from Moscow described Russian officials as angered by Flynn’s firing. “Russophobia had permeated the White House,” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian parliament, was quoted as saying by The Moscow Times, an English-language publication.
Lindsay Wise, William Douglas and Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.