These are the three things which I understand about the situation:

  • He potentially discussed sanctions with a Russian ambassador
  • He misrepresented or lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador
  • He was vulnerable to blackmail

This information has been published by many news organizations, but here's a specific source for the information above.

I have two questions about the current situation:

  1. Was the content of Flynn's discussions with the Russian amabassador illegal? If so, why?

  2. Why did he resign? Was it because of one specific bullet point listed above, or was it the combination of all three and the ensuing bad press?

  • 3
    I don't know that we can answer the second question. At best we could say why they say Flynn's leaving. The ultimate answer is going to be "because the president wanted him to leave." Why? That's mostly between them
    – Brythan
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 13:46
  • 14
    Re: #2, as they noted back during Watergate, "It's Not The Crime, It's The Cover-Up"
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:01
  • 7
    Regarding #2, some are theorizing that Flynn wouldn't have made assurances about sanctions on his own accord (that Trump is ultimately responsible here), and that his resignation is therefore an attempt to take the fall and divert attention from Trump's direct role. I find these theories plausible.
    – BradC
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 17:27
  • 5
    He got caught, that's always the worst crime in politics.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 9:12
  • 3
    @fixer1234, The echo chamber is a known issue in internet usage. While you may not feel that your participation is appropriately appreciated, it is essential to help reduce the echo chamber effect. The presence of a dissenting opinion is a critical part of any political discussion.
    – Separatrix
    Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 8:35

10 Answers 10


Update - WH Statement

According to the White House spokesperson Sean Spicer, Trump seemed to have requested the resignation of Flynn due to a "trust issue".

President Donald Trump asked for Michael Flynn's resignation after he lost trust in his national security adviser for misleading Vice President Mike Pence over his calls with Russia's ambassador, the White House said Tuesday.

"The level of trust between the President and Gen. Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change," Spicer told reporters. "The President was very concerned that Gen. Flynn had misled the vice president and others."

Trump therefore felt he could not trust his top foreign policy right-hand and on key national security issues like China and the Middle East, Spicer said.

(emphasis mine)

Basically, he resigned due to violating the Logan Act and causing embarrassment to the Trump administration.

The Logan Act specifically states:

Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.

(emphasis mine)

According to this BBC article which includes a timeline of the events, Flynn first spoke to the Russian ambassador in the US on Dec 28:

28 December: Mr Flynn and Russian ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, exchange Christmas text messages by mobile phone

Flynn then spoke to him after Obama introduced sanctions on Russia:

29 December: US President Barack Obama announces sanctions expelling 35 Russian diplomats for the country's alleged interference in the US presidential elections

29 December: Mr Flynn holds a phone call with the Russian ambassador

Flynn took office together with President Trump and his executive team:

20 January 2017: President Trump and his executive team, including Mr Flynn, take office

So, Flynn is still considered a private citizen before he took office on Jan 20. Thus, it's a violation of the Logan Act.

As for prosecution, no one has been prosecuted under this act.

This article by Vox states:

No one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act, but Flynn is facing a second and potentially far more dangerous investigation. The FBI is actively probing Flynn’s interactions with Kislyak, and resigning from his White House post won’t shield Flynn from potential future criminal prosecution.

Flynn resigned to avoid embarrassment to the Trump administration since he misled both the public and the Trump administration yet the Trump administration publicly defended him.

As he stated in his resignation letter:

"I inadvertently briefed the Vice President-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the President and the Vice President, and they have accepted my apology."

He denied the contact with the Russian ambassador in an interview on Feb 8.

In a Feb. 8 interview with The Washington Post, Flynn categorically denied discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, repeating public assertions made in January by top Trump officials. One day after the interview, Flynn revised his account, telling The Post through a spokesman that he “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

(emphasis mine)

Even the Vice-President Mike Pence defended him:

Pence said in a Jan. 15 appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were “strictly coincidental” and had nothing to do with the Obama administration’s decision to punish Russia for meddling in the November election, which U.S. intelligence agencies agree was intended to help boost Trump's prospects. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence told CBS.

(emphasis mine)

And the White House's Press Secretary:

Pence wasn’t the only administration official to explain away Flynn’s contact with the Russian envoy. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, then a transition official, said Jan. 13 that Flynn’s calls were about scheduling a call for Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after the swearing in. “That was it,” Spicer said at the time. “Plain and simple.”

(emphasis mine)

So, this caused embarrassment for the Trump administration since they misled the public.

  • 6
    Thanks for the thorough answer! Does the alleged "vulnerability to blackmail" have anything to do with this issue, or it that less important than the two factors you cite as primary reasons for Flynn's resignation?
    – user12353
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:06
  • 3
    @arbitrarystringofletters It might, though it's not the officially stated reason as described in this article by the WP. Personally, I would think that the likely reason is to prevent any further embarrassment to the Trump administration.
    – Panda
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:09
  • 5
    “he misled [...] the Trump administration,” okay, yeah, I’m sure. ⌐.⌐ Still, good answer, +1.
    – KRyan
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 16:57
  • 8
    @arbitrarystringofletters Yes, the journalist who wrote the Washington Post article has clarified that the nature of the "vulnerability to blackmail" was, in fact, that the Russians knew Flynn discussed sanctions (because they were on the other end of the phone), and then lied about it. So they could potentially threaten to publicly expose his lie in exchange for some concession.
    – BradC
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 17:18
  • 4
    @SF.A Christmas SMS is unlikely to be part of the controversy, that's true. But it's not the SMS message that anyone cares about; it's the later (apparently recorded) phone conversation plus the (apparent) statements made by Flynn to Pence (and possibly others) about that conversation. The recording (supposedly) was reviewed after it became clear that there would be no public retaliation by Russia for the latest sanctions, which raised big suspicions about what was really going on. Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 13:10

Flynn's discussions with the Russian Ambassador prior to January 20 could be viewed as a violation of the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments who are having a dispute with the USA. At the time those conversations took place, Flynn was a private citizen and Obama was president. Allegedly, Flynn told the Russian ambassador that the new sanctions imposed would be dropped by the Trump administration.

Flynn then lied to Pence about those conversations, and Pence publicly defended him based on the information Flynn gave him. Now that Flynn is admitting that that subject "possibly" did take place, it is an embarrassment to Pence and the Trump administration. IMHO, the way he phrased his retraction of previous statements was incredibly weak and pathetic: How could one forget that they were assuring the Russians that sanctions would be dropped, and still be unsure whether that was said or not? Is that how our National Security Advisor should act with an adversarial government?

I think the bottom line is that this became too much of an embarrassment and headache to the Trump administration. Lying to Pence was a betrayal to Trump, and Trump has bigger problems to tackle, and so Flynn had to go.

  • 22
    It's not the crime that gets you. It's the cover-up. </nixon>
    – user4012
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:57
  • 5
    Good answer, except "probably." It's pretty much the definition of violating the Logan Act. The "probably" is more whether anything would come of it, seeing as how nothing ever does, and it's happened many times. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:21
  • 2
    @PoloHoleSet - Agreed that this is definitely a violation of the Logan Act if proven and true. Since Flynn is not actually admitting it ("Gosh, I just can't recall if that subject came up") and it has not been proven in a court of law, I was avoiding saying he is guilty. I will be very surprised if he is actually charged and tried.
    – jalynn2
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:39
  • 3
    @PoloHoleSet I don't agree that we have any idea whether or not this violates the Logan Act because we have no idea how a court would construe it in harmony with modern First Amendment jurisprudence. They could, for example, find that the Logan Act no longer applies to any conduct at all (and this is the position of some legal scholars though not the majority). Without any history of prosecution, pretty much all we can do is guess. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 19:13
  • 2
    @DavidSchwartz - Then it's not a matter of whether this violates the Logan Act, but whether the Logan Act is valid, period. It clearly does violate the Logan Act, which currently is in force as law. Whether the Logan Act would hold up on appeal is a different question. Only the current presidential administration's appointed representatives can legally make representations on the behalf of the US government. Flynn was not. There is no grey area there. What you are talking about is something quite different - whether the Logan Act violates the Constitution. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 19:53

In the US, a private citizen cannot "do diplomacy" with a foreign country.

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logan_Act

The Logan Act (1 Stat. 613, 18 U.S.C. § 953, enacted January 30, 1799) is a United States federal law that details the fine and/or imprisonment of unauthorized citizens who negotiate with foreign governments having a dispute with the United States.

At the time of the phone call, Michael Flynn was still not part of the government, and was still an "unauthorized citizen"

He resigned, mostly because he lied to the the Vice President about the content of the phone calls.

  • 2
    Is it likely that he'll be prosecuted for violating the Logan Act?
    – user12353
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 13:57
  • 3
    @arbitrarystringofletters No because (1) Trump would be unlikely to direct prosecution, (2) its very hard to actually prove, currently its all just accusations, (3) people want to get this out of the news asap. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:24
  • 2
    @DavidGrinberg According to the story, they have a recording of Flynn's conversation. Proof isn't necessarily the problem. Either he said something prosecutable or not. Trump not wanting to prosecute in order to get it out of the news cycle as quickly as possible is a much larger obstacle.
    – Brythan
    Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 14:32
  • 4
    @arbitrarystringofletters - This is not the first time the Act would have been violated. It would be the first time it would be used to prosecute. If historical precedent is any indication, regardless of the mood of any administration or opposition, I'd have to say it's highly doubtful that the Logan Act, specifically, would be used as a vehicle for prosecution. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:58
  • 3
    No one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act politico.com/magazine/story/2015/03/…
    – bcattle
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 2:39

He potentially discussed sanctions with a Russian ambassador

This was technically illegal at the time Michael Flynn did it. In and of itself, that was probably survivable, as calling him a private citizen at that point was a bit of a stretch. Note that Donald Trump also engaged in diplomacy prior to becoming president, convincing Egypt to drop their request for a UN resolution against Israel for settlements in Palestine. Also, it's the Trump administration that makes the decision whether or not to prosecute.

The larger problem is that he lied about it to Vice-President-elect Mike Pence. This put Pence in the position of saying things publicly in media interviews that turned out not to be true. While this isn't the same level of legal issue (more of a firing offense than a prosecutable offense), it is probably the larger sin—at least in Trump's eyes. And Pence's.

We don't know what Flynn said (we may eventually find out, as the government has that information). Apparently sanctions were mentioned. He may have promised that Trump would drop sanctions. He may or may not have had authorization to do that. We don't know what would happen in a prosecution, as we don't know what was said. We also don't know that the Trump administration would want a prosecution; they may prefer to get the story finished as soon as possible.

What we know is that Trump has not dropped sanctions. Neither the new ones about the hacking nor the longer run ones about Ukraine.

Being vulnerable to blackmail is not illegal, but it may be a firing offense. Of course, we don't know how he is vulnerable to blackmail. The easy way to avoid blackmail is to share the hidden information. Flynn may have preferred resigning to that. Or he may have had to resign regardless. Absent official statements, we may never know.

There's also an element of palace intrigue to the story. Some in the administration may have wanted Flynn out because he disagreed with them. However, without someone explicitly saying that, that's just speculation.

  • 7
    He was not a member of the administration in power, and he was acting contrary to them, and they have sole authority to conduct foreign policy. That goes beyond "technically illegal." Also, "private citizen" is as defined by the law. He wasn't part of any group that was authorized to conduct foreign policy on behalf of the USA. A bit of hand-waving here. Not enough for a down-vote by me, though. Lying to Pence may be more serious to an authoritarian administration, but under the law, the act, itself, is the more serious offense. Just my opinion. Commented Feb 14, 2017 at 15:25
  • I love that, "potentially discussed" Let's all come up with other things he could have "potentially" discussed. Until someone has been proved to have done something, let's just focus on what is "known." First, we know that all the call crap is classified and we will likely never get the full answer on what was discussed. Second, someone in the administration leaked classified documents and needs to be keelhauled. Third, Flynn lied to the VP about what was going on, and got his butt canned (I am suspecting more than just lying to the VP, but that in and of itself is a valid reason). Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 3:20
  • @nzksharyia not necessarily, a recording could have been supplied by a Russian actor. Do not forget Flynn's stance on Iran
    – Sentinel
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 7:41
  • @PoloHoleSet: A key aspect of the Logan Act is the intention with which any action is undertaken. If the Russian ambassador had expressed some personal anxiety with regard to U.S. relations, it would be plausible that Flynn might have said something to ease his mind and thought nothing more of it. That wouldn't really rise to the level of "discussion", nor would entail the level of intent necessary to violate the Logan Act, but might still be enough to suggest that Flynn may not be 100% suitable for the job
    – supercat
    Commented Feb 18, 2017 at 20:30
  • @supercat - possible, but I'm not sure about plausible. He lied through his teeth about it, changed his stories, and they had exactly what was said recorded, and it was alarming enough that they did a report saying he was compromised and blackmail-able over it. That doesn't strike me as kind of an aside that technically tripped over the Logan Act. We'll know in about 20 years if those recordings get released via FOIA. Commented Feb 20, 2017 at 14:12

As far as we know, with emphasis on what we know right now, Flynn has not been proven to have talked about dropping the sanctions. If he had discussed doing anything at all with the sanctions, then yes, he would have violated the Logan Act, and should be prosecuted. That has yet to be proven, but from what I have heard, he did talk about sanctions, allegedly, but he didn't talk about dropping them. Again, this isn't varified, but it is likely. His lying to Pence is the only known fault as of now. We need the transcripts: without them, we have no definitive truth to this story, it's still all speculation.


The key is his failure to properly state his actions to Vice President Pence. As for his vulnerability to blackmail, no chance since the issue has been made public, and he didn't do anything specifically dangerous or illegal. As for his culpability under the Logan Act, while there is a thin thread of technical standing, there is no practical standing. As the person fingered by a President-elect for the job of incoming NSA, the concept that he would be pro-active in establishing relations and understanding with key foreign counterparts is perfectly reasonable, and his actions were neither treacherous nor insidious.

However, the fact that he felt the need to misrepresent himself to the Vice President implies (but offers no real evidence) that there might be more. In any case, while unfortunate to have to jettison a top advisor so early in the administration, it may well turn out to be wise to not permit an aroma of scandal to linger.

  • I don't think this is the real reason as President Trump knew about this about 4 weeks before he resigned. The real reason seems to be that the public found out and reporters were asking questions. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 20:07
  • I don't disagree. I expect that the president was going to be willing to let the faux pas slide, until it left the vice president in a bad light. Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 20:29

According to today's White House Press briefing (I listened on the radio so I have no link) Mr. Flynn was asked to resign precisely for your second bullet above.

His lie to Vice President Pence represented a breach of trust. There is no concern that his actions in discussing the sanctions with the Russian Ambassador we of any legal concern.

Update with additional information

According to NPR The "intelligence official" who actually read the transcript of the call between Mr. Flynn and Sergey Kislyak says, like the White House, that there is no legal issue here.

The intelligence official who has personally seen the transcripts told Mary Louise they contained "no evidence" of criminal wrongdoing, although the official said it can't be definitively ruled out.

I'm sure much will be made of the official's statement of "it can't be definitively ruled out". In any case, it seems that the White House's statement to the effect that there is no legal concern can no longer be attributed to political posturing as some comments here seem to suggest.

  • 6
    this is patently false. There is concern that his actions violated (at least) the Logan Act
    – Black
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 0:40
  • @Francis - there is no concern "of this administration" that his actions violated ... ? Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 1:33
  • @RogerWillcocks whether or not that's what the OP meant; I'm sure it's not even true to say this administration has no concern the actions were legal
    – Black
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 1:39
  • 1
    @Francis What is "patently false"? I reported as closely as possible what was stated at the White House press briefing. I am sure that you are privy to inside information and know with absolute certainty what others really think, but the rest of us have to rely on known statements. You may not like it, but the White House emphatically stated yesterday that there was "no legal concern"
    – Michael J.
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 13:29
  • I seriously doubt the Trump administration cares about the Logan Act. If we were prosecuting that, we would start with Nancy Pelosi, Jimmy Carter and Jesse Jackson, who have all violated the Logan Act at least once. So from the perspective of the administration, what Flynn did wrong was lie to Pence about the conversation. They don't feel they can trust him, so he's out. I agree with Michael J.
    – JamieB
    Commented Feb 16, 2017 at 16:14

The nature of the call to the Russian Ambassador is what could be a problem. Just talking to a Russian, despite what has been alluded to in many places, is not illegal. He was a private citizen at the time and, by law (a very old, never enforced law), could not carry out foreign policy. Without a transcript of what was said, it is not possible to determine if he broke the law. Apparently the WH Attorney determined that he did nothing wrong according to the WH.

For sake of argument, what possible damage to this country could there be if he did discuss the sanctions and did irresponsibly make some sort of assurance to the Russian Ambassador about the sanctions. What difference does it make? Is it really that big of a deal one way or another? To date no action has been taken on the sanctions by the administration. Given the current state of relations with the Russians I do not see any evidence of improving Russian-US affairs.

  • 3
    the second paragraph is just a rant that does not add anything to the answer.
    – Federico
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 10:09

The "facts" referenced in the question are innuendo and mischaracterizations that were part of an orchestrated effort by a team of Obama loyalists to undermine Flynn. The Washington Post and other left-leaning media were only too happy to promote the narrative.

To your bullets and the theme of most of the answers:

  • He did not "discuss" sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
  • He didn't lie about it or misrepresent it.
  • He was not vulnerable to blackmail.
  • He did not violate the Logan act.

As an essential part of the transition to the new administration, Flynn was tasked to talk with the Russian ambassador, as well as counterparts in other countries, to make preparations for future discussions and working relationships. He didn't discuss or negotiate any policy matters or anything else dealing with matters of state.

In his conversation with the Russian ambassador, the ambassador mentioned the sanctions and Flynn told him that it would be inappropriate to discuss it prior to the new administration taking office.

When Flynn discussed his conversation with Pence, that item was immaterial and Flynn didn't think to mention it. The leaked transcripts later surfaced, which included mention of the sanctions, at which point Flynn was reminded of that detail and clarified it. The FBI reviewed the matter and determined that nothing inappropriate happened. The entire thing was a nothingburger, a manufactured issue.

So how did it become an issue that led to his resignation? That's the better story.

A collection of Obama loyalists organized a concerted, behind the scenes effort to undermine the Trump administration in general, and Flynn in particular. "Top members of the Obama administration's national security team have launched a communications infrastructure after they left the White House, and have told reporters they are using that infrastructure to undermine Trump's foreign policy."

Scuttling Flynn in particular was to protect the Iran deal. "The Obama administration knew that Flynn was going to release the secret documents around the Iran deal, which would blow up their myth that it was a good deal that rolled back Iran."

They engaged in a months-long campaign to leak documents and plant a series of damaging stories about Flynn in the national media, deluging media outlets with stories aimed at eroding Flynn's credibility. The stories never actually accused him of doing anything. It was innuendo, half truths, mischaracterizations, and what-ifs. Others, including much of the media, ran wild with it, elaborating and spinning off theories such as described in the answers here.

Flynn had to resign in order for the Trump administration to get past the noise and distraction, and the baggage that had been created around him. He became politically untenable. Justifying his resignation on what he had told Pence was an easy public excuse.

The bulk of the story is covered here: http://freebeacon.com/national-security/former-obama-officials-loyalists-waged-campaign-oust-flynn/

Much of the detail about the Flynn conversation has been released. People are free to look it up.

  • No amount of documentation I would provide will be satisfactory to the party loyalists on this site, so I don't intend to provide more. It's available if people want to educate themselves. I expect that this answer will be viewed as right-wing propaganda and dismissed, so it is a waste of time to try to perfect an answer here. My only purpose in posting it at all was to not let the misinformation on this page go unchallenged.
    – user11810
    Commented Feb 19, 2017 at 10:23
  • 1
    This answer seems to be untrue in light of recent news regarding Flynn's guilty plea and Trump's own tweet: "I had to fire General Flynn because he lied to the Vice President and the FBI. He has pled guilty to those lies. It is a shame because his actions during the transition were lawful. There was nothing to hide!"
    – user12353
    Commented Dec 8, 2017 at 13:27

The problem with Michael Flynn is that he shouldn't have spoken about Russian sanctions before the issue is resolved between Europe, Russia and Ukraine. The information he shared with the Russian ambassador was vulnerable from America's point of view.

  • 1
    I proposed an edit to your answer to fix some spelling mistakes, but I have no idea what you mean by "vulnerable information" so left that part alone. Is that in reference to a potential blackmail situation?
    – user
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 14:30
  • 1
    @Kumar PG Which "issue" are you talking about? What does intra-European relations have to do with the question at hand?
    – user12353
    Commented Feb 15, 2017 at 15:10
  • @MichaelKjörling the vulnerable information regarding the syrian regime.
    – Nikhil
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 6:16
  • @arbitrarystringofletters there is lot to do with intra european because the way russians show aggresive way to european countries is a real threat.
    – Nikhil
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 6:18
  • @Kumar PG Again, what does that have to do with this issue? How is that relevant to the situation with Michael Flynn?
    – user12353
    Commented Feb 17, 2017 at 10:49

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