The Russia/Flynn/Freedom Caucus vortex of questions and tension at the White House

Story highlights

  • Trump's agenda has been overshadowed by Russia
  • New revelations have come daily

Washington (CNN)As another frenzied Washington week closes, the White House seems to be losing control of the quickening intrigue over Russia's meddling in the election, and allegations of links between the Trump campaign and Kremlin associates.

Characteristically, President Donald Trump's team is often escalating confrontations rather than dampening them. It's a strategy that may be making the challenges more intractable by the hour.
Trump gave fresh life to the Russia controversy with a stunning Twitter burst about the legal position of his sacked national security adviser Michael Flynn. And he's simultaneously waging war with the conservative House Freedom Caucus which helped deal him a stinging defeat over the repeal of Obamacare -- setting up a fateful test of presidential authority.
    Abroad, meanwhile, the tepid international mood that has prevailed since Trump's inauguration is showing signs of heating up. Relations with Moscow are deteriorating. And Trump is warning that his summit next week with the leader of another great power, Xi Jinping of China, could turn into a rocky affair.
    "The meeting next week with China will be a very difficult one in that we can no longer have massive trade deficits..." Trump tweeted Thursday.

    Rapid developments

    The pace of developments over the last day reveal the mass of problems now beginning to pile up on Trump's White House, as the President's personal political standing continues to decline after only three months.
    Often, the buzzsaw of news, revelations and gossip about West Wing staff tensions, tends to overshadow the significance of any day's events.
    But take just one developing story, the one around Flynn.
    The spectacle of an already dismissed national security adviser seeking legal immunity to testify about a scandal that is raging less than 100 days into an administration is without recent historical precedent.
    "It is deeply disturbing to have a President in the first 100 days to be embroiled in what may be a scandal," said David Gergen, a veteran presidential adviser for multiple presidents and a CNN political analyst.
    "Increasingly, it appears with General Flynn now saying he would testify if granted immunity, that really suggests very heavily there is definitely fire and what we have been seeing over the last few weeks is an attempt to cover up fire with smoke," Gergen told CNN's Don Lemon on Thursday night.
    Far from being cowed by the statements by Flynn's lawyer about a possible immunity request to the FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees, Trump gave the story new life with a tweet.
    "Mike Flynn should ask for immunity in that this is a witch hunt (excuse for big election loss), by media & Dems, of historic proportion!" Trump wrote on Friday morning.
    White House spokesman Sean Spicer tried Friday to muddy the narrative by arguing that the Obama administration should be the one being investigated.
    He referenced reports, including a New York Times story published on March 1 that suggested that at the end of the Obama administration, officials spread information about Russian attempts to meddle in the election -- and about possible contacts between Trump aides and the Russians, across the government. The aim, the report said, was partly designed to leave a trail of evidence for government investigators.

    Evelyn Farkas

    Spicer also cited an appearance on MSNBC by an Obama administration Pentagon official Evelyn Farkas, who left government service well before the 2016 election in which she said she had urged her former colleagues to get information to Capitol Hill before Trump took office, fearing that his staff would compromise sources and methods.
    "Dr. Evelyn Farkas, together with previous reports that have been out, raised serious concerns on whether or not there was an organized and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive intelligence information for political purposes," Spicer said.
    However the comments by Farkas appeared to indicate however that she was worried that the information could be buried by Trump officials, not that she wanted it leaked. And she also appeared to be commenting about the Times report, not from the basis of knowledge about classified information.
    While there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by Flynn so far or of illicit links to the Russians, his move gave Democrats an opening to escalate the sense of crisis now surrounding the White House.
    "Generally, innocent people don't seek immunity," California Rep. Eric Swalwell, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Lemon.
    Rep. Adam Schiff, the committee's top Democrat, quickly pivoted to his call for Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, who was fired by Trump, to be allowed to testify.
    "The public should learn a lot more about WHY General Flynn wants immunity when Sally Yates testifies before the House Intelligence Committee," Schiff wrote.

    Nunes factor

    Another subplot of the Russia story also appears to be rebounding to the detriment of the White House -- indications that Trump aides worked closely with the House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes at a time when his committee is investigating alleged Trump team links to Russia.
    Two White House staffers Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Michael Ellis are believed to have assisted Nunes last week, a US official told CNN. They were first named in reports by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
    The Times reported on Thursday that two White House officials helped furnish Nunes with intelligence reports that showed that Trump aides were caught up in "incidental" surveillance of foreign targets.
    When Nunes then told Trump about the reports, the President said he felt partially vindicated over a tweet in which he accused President Barack Obama, without evidence, of wiretapping him during the campaign.
    The White House has refused to comment on the Times report, but has not dismissed it outright. Its silence raised new questions both about whether the Trump administration was trying to shape the work of the committee and why, if, the information was already at the White House, aides relied on Nunes to deliver it to the President.
    "Whether the President was aware or not is one thing, the Trump administration certainly was, and it is very bizarre," House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi told NBC's "Today" show. "I've never seen behavior this bizarre on the part of the chairman."
    But Washington's fixation with Trump and Russia is not universally shared in the rest of the nation -- especially among Trump voters who show little sign so far of deserting their champion despite his political troubles.
    Trump voters who spoke to CNN's Alisyn Camerota, for instance, had little concern about allegations of links between the Trump campaign and associates of Russian President Vladimir Putin or about the President's admiration for the strongman Russian leader, who is seen widely as a US enemy in Washington.
    "A lot of people misunderstood I think, when Trump compliments Putin," said Sara Marie Brenner, former chairman of the the Trump campaign in Delaware County, Ohio, said on "New Day."
    "You might respect them just because of what they have been able to accomplish and if you look at Putin, even though we don't agree with what he does, as far as his agenda, he's done a pretty good job of accomplishing it in Russia," Brenner said told Camerota.
    "But people on the left misconstrued that as Trump wanting to be like Putin."

    House Freedom Caucus

    While one showdown is raging over Russia, the Trump White House is tackling a more conventional political fight, with the conservative Republicans who were one reason why the Obamacare repeal bill crashed a week ago.
    "If @RepMarkMeadows, @JimJordan and @RaulLabrador would get on board we would have both great healthcare and massive tax cuts & reform," Trump tweeted late on Thursday night.
    The tweet signaled the President is not just ready to target the House Freedom Caucus as a group but is equally ready to single out individual members, raising questions about whether he will support primary challenges against individual members ahead of the midterm elections in 2018.
    But the campaign also represents a risk for the President, who with approval ratings at less than 40% in many polls does not have the political weight that he might have if he was more popular.
    In many safe conservative districts, House Freedom Caucus members ran ahead of Trump's numbers in their re-election races last year, raising doubts about the extent of the President's leverage.
    A prominent member of the House Freedom Caucus warned Trump to be careful.
    "I hope the President will bear in mind that the freedom caucus is going to provide the bulwark of the support the President needs on things like border security, trade agreements and making sure that the Trans-Pacific Partnership does not resurface in a different shape or fashion," Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks told CNN.
    "Our support is going to be necessary for tax cuts and for the protection of free enterprise. So we're not always going to agree, but there are some major issues going forward where the President will need our support and I hope he will bear that in mind," Brooks said.

    Foreign policy

    While Trump has plenty of troubles at home, threats are also stirring abroad.
    Given the outcry of claims of administration cooperation with Russia, it's now clear Trump now lacks political room to effect a detente with Moscow. And relations seemed to be getting worse quickly.
    Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson criticized Russian involvement in Ukraine on Friday during trips overseas.
    Mattis also called out the Putin regime for "mucking around" in other people's elections.
    Exemplifying the worsening atmosphere of Russia-US ties, Alexey Pushkov, a senior Russian lawmaker, tweeted: "New US administration sounds just like the old one — Mattis is indistinguishable from (former Defense Secretary Ash) Carter, Tillerson is talking about 'Russian aggression.' (Barack) Obama and (Hillary) Clinton must be happy."