Behind the scenes: Flynn revelations scramble White House

Story highlights

  • Trump's day began with a diplomatic success
  • It wasn't until later in the day that signs of trouble emerged

Washington (CNN)The first major shakeup of his top-level staff looming, President Donald Trump sought some positive affirmation.

Walking from the Oval Office past his personal assistants and into the West Wing hallways, Trump, spotted by reporters, stopped in front of a blown-up photograph hanging outside his press secretary's office.
"Look at this," he exclaimed at an image of his inauguration, taken from the Capitol and showing crowds appearing to stretch far into the distance. "Where did all these people come from?"
It was just after 5 p.m. ET Monday. For Trump, a day that began with a diplomatic success was quickly becoming overwhelmed with the sour realization that one of his most loyal advisers would soon have to go, less than a month after Trump was sworn in.
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Michael Flynn, aides say, had lost Trump's confidence after he misled Vice President Mike Pence about a December phone call with the Russian ambassador. The situation, Trump felt, was unsustainable. Other top advisers, including chief strategist Steve Bannon, were already putting Flynn's resignation into motion.
The drumbeat of questions and allegations was impossible for Trump to ignore much longer. Instead of an irksome sticking point with the press, the size of his inauguration crowds now seemed like a place of solace.
"Look at this picture," Trump sighed. "That's amazing."
The moment of nostalgia for the first minutes of his presidency didn't last long. As a group of reporters standing nearby began peppering Trump with questions about his embattled national security adviser, Trump turned away, walking toward his private residence and leaving his spokesman Sean Spicer behind to explain Flynn's status.
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Earlier Monday, there was ample reason to believe that all was well between Trump and Flynn, who was participating fully in the White House's foreign policy meetings. He conducted the President's daily intelligence briefing, prepared Trump for phone calls with the leaders of Nigeria and South Africa, and sat in talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, part of which centered on refugee policy.
Until Monday, the White House expressed only faith in Flynn, a retired general who caused deep consternation among career National Security Council staff during his brief tenure.
It wasn't until late in the day, after Trump's counselor Kellyanne Conway told MSNBC that Trump had "full confidence" in Flynn, that signs of trouble emerged.
Reports came to light that Justice Department officials had warned the White House last month that Flynn could potentially be blackmailed by Russia.
Spicer, appearing in a West Wing hallway after the President brushed off the questions about Flynn, said that Trump was "evaluating the situation" with input from Pence.
Spicer was reading from a statement he had just composed in the Oval Office with Trump and chief of staff Reince Priebus, whose own standing in the administration recently emerged as a subject of speculation.
As descriptions of Flynn's standing evolved, Conway darted into Spicer's office, leaving a few moments later. Just before 6 p.m. ET, the press secretary told reporters that Trump wanted to make known he was assessing Flynn's actions.
"That is the statement the President wanted to express," Spicer said, ending any incertitude about whether Flynn was still in good standing.
The evaluation, it turned out, didn't require long. Seen in the Oval Office for a final time just before Trump swore in his Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin at 8 p.m., Flynn handed over his resignation letter to Trump shortly after the President requested he step down.
"Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador," Flynn wrote in the letter, which was made public at 11 p.m. ET. "I have sincerely apologized to the President and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology."
For Trump, a stalwart believer in loyalty who's been taking advice from Flynn for the better part of two years, it was an unpleasant and early entry into the world of West Wing reshuffles.
White House officials said Tuesday the decision was necessary.
"The issue, pure and simple, came down to a matter of trust, and the President concluded that he no longer had the trust of his national security adviser," Spicer said. "The President decided to ask for his resignation and he got it."
But even for a man who's public image has been lassoed to the act of terminating employees, the first high-profile sacking left a bad taste.
"Outside of 'Apprentice,' Trump does not relish firing people," one administration official said.