February 14, 2017 11:52 pm JST
Keith B. Richburg

Flynn resignation adds to chaos in Trump White House

Washington upheaval may complicate detente with Russia for US and Japan

Michael Flynn, then a U.S. Army lieutenant general, looks at U.S. President-elect Donald Trump as he talks with the media in Palm Beach, Florida, U.S., on Dec. 21. © Reuters

The resignation of Michael Flynn, U.S. President Donald Trump's national security advisor, leaves a vacuum at the top of the White House's foreign policy structure as the new administration tries to reshape America's relationship with Russia and calibrate a response to the latest missile test provocation from North Korea.

Flynn was forced to resign after less than a month in office for making potentially illegal contacts with the Russian ambassador in Washington, an issue that may complicate Trump's stated goal of improving relations with Moscow and possibly lifting U.S. sanctions against Russia.

In his keen pursuit of warmer relations with Russia, Trump had found a kindred spirit in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a recent guest and golfing partner at the president's Florida retreat, who has launched his own friendly efforts for detente with Moscow

U.S. sanctions imposed after Russia's invasion and annexation of Crimea were increased in December by the outgoing administration of President Barack Obama, in retaliation for what he described as Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Because the Russian meddling was said to have been aimed at helping Trump get elected, any easing of sanctions would be viewed suspiciously by Trump's critics, including members of the opposition Democratic Party, as a possible return favor to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Flynn had a Dec. 29 conversation with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, in which the two discussed the Obama-imposed sanctions. Leaks to U.S. media based on their intercepted communications suggested that Flynn may have hinted to the Russians that Trump would lift the sanctions once in office. Reportedly, Flynn later assured White House officials, including Vice-President Mike Pence, that he did not discuss the sanctions in that call -- a falsehood that was revealed in transcripts of the calls, intercepted and monitored by the F.B.I.

Many unanswered questions were swirling around Washington on Tuesday in the wake of the first high profile White House resignation after a tumultuous three weeks of the new presidency. Chief among them is, could Flynn have been acting on Trump's behalf when he made the call to the Russian diplomat?

The White House appeared on Tuesday to be trying to move quickly to halt the chaos at the National Security Council, which was already reported to be in confusion under a president who makes off-the-cuff foreign policy pronouncements via Twitter and who has engaged in a series of confrontational telephone calls with foreign leaders.

Keith Kellogg was named acting national security advisor, but he is a Flynn deputy and is seen as unlikely to remain in the post. Retired General David Petraeus, a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and Robert Harward, a former deputy commander of the U.S. military in the Middle East and Central Asia, are under consideration for the position, a White House official told Reuters. Harward was described by officials as the leading candidate.The immediate vacuum leaves the new administration more vulnerable in dealing with crises. Rex Tillerson recently took over as Trump's secretary of state, but he is new to the foreign policy world, and is so far acting without a deputy. Trump is said to have vetoed Tillerson's choice of veteran diplomat Elliot Abrams for the number two job at the State department. Other top positions at State remain unfilled.

Meanwhile, the administration is facing its first big foreign policy test -- how to respond to North Korea's weekend launch of a medium-to-long range ballistic missile. Trump in January tweeted that any North Korean launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile "won't happen!" But faced with an actual launch of a shorter-range missile, Trump was uncharacteristically subdued, his Twitter account surprisingly quiet.

The North Korean launch came as Abe was engaged in some high-profile diplomacy over dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago Florida estate. The normally loquacious Trump gave a single-sentence response, saying the U.S. stood "100 percent" behind its ally Japan.

Asia was initially rattled by Trump's earlier promises to launch a trade war with China; make Japan and South Korea pay more for U.S. bases; and forge a closer U.S. relationship with Taiwan. He began his tenure in office by ripping up the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was the cornerstone of Obama's "pivot" to Asia, and trying to introduce a ban on migrants from certain Muslim majority countries. But in recent weeks, Trump has seemed to adapt a more measured -- some would even say "normal" -- approach.

His new defense secretary recently toured South Korea and Japan and reassured key U.S. allies of America's continued security commitment. Trump also held a conciliatory phone call with China's President Xi Jinping in which he reiterated America's commitment to a "one China policy" that excludes Taiwan. And his first foreign visitor to Mar-a-Lago was Abe -- leader of a country he loudly criticized during the campaign for allegedly manipulating its currency and hurting American jobs.

On Asia policy, at least, it seems the complexities and nuances of the region have tempered Trump's unconventional outbursts.

If the chaos at the NSC delays or alters Trump's plans for a closer relationship with Moscow, Japan could also be impacted, as Abe is also pursuing warmer ties with Russia, for a different reason.

Abe recently held talks with Putin over resolving the World War II-era dispute over ownership of the southernmost Kuril islands, which are administered by Russia but claimed by Japan. Abe later said Trump "understood that we're pursuing dialogue with" Putin over the islands, and reportedly encouraged the new American president to pursue friendlier ties with Russia. Russia, in turn, is said to be interested in courting Japanese investment in its far East.

Now, because of Flynn's ill-advised telephone call with the Russian ambassador, anything positive that Trump does on Russia will be met with suspicion -- and possibly with calls for a congressional investigation into whether there was any quid pro quo.

Abe may have succeeded in tempering Trump's approach to China, and perhaps also to North Korea's provocations. On dealing with Russia, the world may have to wait and see. But three weeks of the Trump administration has already produced enough Washington chaos for three years -- and there has not yet been a serious foreign policy crisis.

Keith B. Richburg, a former foreign editor of The Washington Post, is director of Hong Kong University's Journalism and Media Studies Center.

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