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Flynn's Departure Signals Upheaval Inside National Security Council


Twenty-five days - that's how long Michael Flynn lasted as national security adviser. New details are emerging today about his ouster. He now admits that he misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. At issue is whether he promised that the U.S. would ease sanctions imposed by the Obama administration.


White House Spokesman Sean Spicer said today President Trump asked for Flynn's resignation and got it.


SEAN SPICER: We got to a point not based on a legal issue but based on a trust issue where the level of trust between the president and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change.

MCEVERS: Flynn's departure leaves a vacuum at the top of the National Security Council. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports on the upheaval inside the NSC and what's not getting done with all of Washington distracted.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: Here's one way of looking at Flynn's departure. Maybe not much will change.

PHILIP GORDON: To be honest, even before Flynn's resignation, was scene at the NSC was fairly chaotic.

KELLY: That's Philip Gordon, a veteran of both the Obama and Clinton National Security Councils. He points to reports of dysfunction. Still, he says the national security adviser plays an essential role in briefing the president every day. Gordon says when the job is not filled or not filled well, you get trouble.

GORDON: If you just think about the inbox of the president today on Iran and Ukraine and the South China Sea and North Korean tests and Egypt and Yemen and Afghanistan and NAFTA and Islamic State strategy and safe zones in Syria, I mean you could go - the volume that goes across the national security adviser's desk is extraordinary. And every one of those issues is extraordinarily complicated and fraught with risk.

KELLY: Want an urgent example of what could go wrong without a steady national security adviser at the helm? Phil Gordon says look at tomorrow. Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu is visiting the White House. Sure, Gordon says Trump has other advisers to help him prep, but Trump will not benefit from the detailed and careful process that Gordon says is the signature of the NSC.

GORDON: And I can guarantee you that Prime Minister Netanyahu will be more prepared for the meeting than President Trump. You know, that leads to U.S. foreign policy mistakes.

KELLY: We should note there is an acting national security adviser in place. That's retired General Keith Kellogg. And Fran Townsend, veteran of George W. Bush's National Security Council, says it's nonsense to think that Flynn's absence will automatically lead the whole enterprise to go off the rails.

FRAN TOWNSEND: The business of the country continues to get done. It doesn't stop because one person walks out the door.

KELLY: Townsend served as President Bush's homeland security adviser. She says the timing of Flynn's resignation is unfortunate - just three weeks in. But she argues the palace intrigue won't have a serious impact.

TOWNSEND: This is Washington's favorite parlor game, right? I think we on the outside spend a lot more time on this sort of nonsense than you do when you have the nation's business that you're responsible for. I mean I just don't think the people - the substantive people in the White House have the luxury of the parlor game. They just don't.

KELLY: Townsend predicts calmer waters ahead for the Trump White House. Adam Schiff does not. He's the California congressman who's the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff believes the Russia trail does not end with Michael Flynn, that it leads deeper and higher in the White House. Schiff says he's troubled in particular by this question.

ADAM SCHIFF: Was Flynn acting at the president's behest? Was he acting with the president's knowledge?

KELLY: Because if that were true...

SCHIFF: Then you have the president of the United States, the prospect of the president of the United States lying to the public about contacts with one of the principal threats to the country, that being Russia. That's about as serious as it gets in the national security realm.

KELLY: Trump Spokesman Sean Spicer categorically denied this charge today, saying the president did not direct Flynn to talk about sanctions. That's a month and a day after Spicer categorically denied that Michael Flynn ever discussed sanctions with Russia's ambassador. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.