Michael Flynn resigns, China wins one, and Trump’s court nominee is demoralized.

This Week in Trump: The Russia Scandal Claims Its First Casualty

This Week in Trump: The Russia Scandal Claims Its First Casualty

A weekly newsletter.
Feb. 15 2017 7:39 PM

This Week in Trump: Man Down

The Russia scandal claims its first casualty.

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Donald Trump, left, jokes with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn at a rally on Oct. 18 in Grand Junction, Colorado.

George Frey/Getty Images

Welcome to This Week in Trump, Slate’s weekly look at Donald Trump’s presidency. Every week, we’ll catch you up on the events of the past seven days, point you to further reading, and keep an eye on the @realDonaldTrump Twitter feed.

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First man out

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It took less than a month—24 days to be exact—for President Donald Trump’s administration to suffer its first high-level resignation when Michael Flynn was pushed out from his post as national security adviser Monday night. The ouster, which had been anticipated for several days, has sparked fresh questions about the administration’s contacts with Moscow, which NBC News described as “arguably the biggest scandal involving a foreign government since Iran-Contra.”

The affair went into overdrive when the Washington Post reported that, contrary to White House statements, Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. before Trump’s inauguration. Flynn’s message to the ambassador was clear, according to the New York Times: Relations would be friendlier under Trump.

Democrats renewed demands for investigations and a full accounting of the Trump campaign’s contact with Russia, and some Republicans appear to be buckling under the pressure. That pressure is only bound to get stronger after CNN and the Times revealed Trump aides were in “constant” contact with Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. Intelligence agents were apparently sufficiently alarmed by the contacts to talk anonymously to reporters, although they say there’s no evidence of collusion between Trump’s associates and Russia on the election hacking. Trump took to Twitter to dismiss the stories as Democratic sour grapes.

Retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg was moved from chief of staff of the White House National Security Council to serve as acting national security adviser.

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Insecurity theater

The resignation came after a week filled with national security–related anxiety, as Trump appeared to flout security protocols by turning the crowded terrace of his Mar-a-Lago resort into what the Washington Post called an “open-air situation room.” After North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test on Sunday, Trump took the call at his table, where he was dining with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Waiters continued to serve Trump’s party dinner, and diners took photos of Trump at work (one photo in particular appeared to capture the very essence of the Trump administration). Aides lit up documents for Trump with flashlights on their cellphones. Trump later stopped by a wedding (of a donor’s son, of course) with Abe in tow.

In the midst of these questions came an explosive New York Times story that shed light on some of the turmoil within the National Security Council. Veteran staff are troubled by overt partisanship and an increased emphasis on military rather than diplomatic solutions. The piece also revealed Trump liked to receive one-page briefings “with lots of graphics and maps.” In one official’s words, “the president likes maps.”

Giving China what it wants

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Trump has long seemed to relish needling China, but this week the president bent over backward for Beijing, assuring President Xi Jinping that the United States had no plans to abandon the “one China” policy, reversing an earlier suggestion that the decadeslong diplomatic understanding could be in doubt. Trump gave the message during an “extremely cordial” phone call with Xi, who had apparently explicitly requested the president’s reassurance on the issue. Reports credited Secretary of State Rex Tillerson for the shift; Tillerson had also toned down what seemed to be the threat of a naval blockade of China’s islands in the South China Sea.

Also this week

  • Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, privately told Democrats that he’s no fan of the president’s attacks on the judiciary, calling them “demoralizing” and “disheartening.” Through a spokesman, Gorsuch confirmed the remarks. On Twitter, Trump claimed Gorsuch had been misrepresented.
  • The Office of Government Ethics recommended that the White House take disciplinary action against counselor Kellyanne Conway for promoting Ivanka Trump’s product line during a television interview.
  • Trump’s pick for labor secretary, fast-food CEO Andy Puzder, withdrew his nomination amid domestic-violence allegations and Republican defections.
  • With the president’s Muslim ban put on hold by the courts, the White House is considering issuing new executive orders on immigration.
  • More than 680 people who were in the United States illegally were arrested last week in a series of raids across the country.
  • Foreign creditors appear less willing to buy U.S. debt since Trump’s election.
  • Presidential adviser Stephen Miller went on TV on Sunday and once again advanced discredited conspiracy theories about voter fraud.
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Trump on Monday. “We won’t always agree on everything,” Trudeau said while insisting it wasn’t his role to “lecture another country on how they chose to govern themselves.”
  • The Department of Education misspelled W.E.B. Du Bois’ name.

What to read

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Religious conservatives are enjoying a growing influence inside the White House, writes Jeremy Peters in the New York Times:

Mr. Trump, a profane, bombastic, thrice-married New Yorker, may not have been the candidate many religious conservatives prayed would win the White House. But the mutually beneficial arrangement he has nurtured with the Christian right is already starting to nudge the government in a more conservative direction.
A group that has felt shunted aside by the Republican establishment is finding doors open more quickly and willingly than it did even under friendly presidents like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
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Look past all the noise and you’ll quickly discover that Trump hasn’t actually done much in his first month in office, writes Zachary Karabell in Politico:

So far, Trump has behaved exactly like he has throughout his previous career: He has generated intense attention and sold himself as a man of action while doing little other than promote an image of himself as someone who gets things done.

Why does the White House continue to push false claims of voter fraud? Because it wants to strip away the right to vote for millions of Americans, warns Slate’s Jamelle Bouie:

Birtherism helped the set the stage for the rapid rise and success of a mass nativist movement. In the hands of Donald Trump, the voter fraud myth may do the same for the growing effort to make voting hard again—to make voting white again.

This Week in @realDonaldTrump

  • Trump went on the offensive against Sen. John McCain and his criticism of the Yemen raid, dedicating three tweets to attacking the Republican leader.
  • The commander-in-chief criticized a New York Times story for not containing information about a conversation that took place after the article was published.
  • Trump told followers they shouldn’t pay attention to estimates for the cost of the border wall because he hasn’t started negotiating yet.
  • Apropos of nothing, Trump blasted Mark Cuban as “not smart enough to run for president.”
  • Amid the first high-level resignation of his presidency and the deepening Russia scandal, Trump said the “real story” was “why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington.” He continued along those lines in two tweets the next day.

Last take

Trump’s weird handshakes, in which the president flails his hands about and jerks his handshake partner in and out, came under scrutiny this week. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was subjected to a painfully awkward 19-second-long handshake last week. GIFs of the event circulated on social media, and John Oliver covered it on Last Week Tonight.

But when Trudeau went to the White House, he was prepared to defend himself. Trudeau “showed the world how to shake hands with Donald Trump,” noted the Huffington Post, as video analyses and memes spread across the internet. As one tweeter had it, “Trudeau resisting Trump's weird handshake is the biggest display of dominance in the history of Canada.”

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.