Donald Trump is facing mounting pressure to explain his ties with Russia after it emerged he knew weeks ago his national security adviser had misled officials about secret communications with Russian officials but did not fire him.
Retired general Michael Flynn was eventually forced to quit after reports that he could be vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow. He is the third Trump official forced out over links to Russia and its president Vladimir Putin.
Flynn stepped down after just 24 days when it emerged he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador to Washington before Trump took office, which is illegal, then misled vice-president Mike Pence and others about the conversations.
White House officials were reeling from the scandal less than a month after Trump’s inauguration amid reports of disarray and dysfunction. They also faced questions why they did not act more than two weeks ago when the Justice Department warned Flynn might be vulnerable to blackmail. Until 13 February, Flynn continued to have access to top-level information.
In recent weeks US and allied intelligence agencies have concluded Russian hackers interfered in last year’s election with the intention of hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Trump. He has repeatedly declined to criticise Putin.
Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader in Congress, called for a wide-ranging investigation. “The American people deserve to know the full extent of Russia’s financial, personal and political grip on President Trump and what that means for our national security,” she said.
The demand threw down the gauntlet to Republicans, who control the House and Senate but have an often difficult relationship with Trump. They were split, with some playing down the allegations.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer declined to say whether the administration would cooperate with a congressional inquiry.
Trump named retired general and campaign adviser Keith Kellogg as acting national security adviser. Trump is considering former CIA director David Petraeus and admiral Robert Harward for the post. Petraeus is still on probation after admitting leaking official secrets during an affair with a colleague.
The president attempted to deflect attention from the scandal with a tweet: “The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?”
Flynn was often an angry, outspoken warmup act for Trump at his election campaign rallies, leading chants of “Lock her up!” in reference to Clinton.
The question of the relationship between the president and Putin – who Trump once claimed to have met and later denied knowing – hung over his campaign and now looms over his presidency.
Trump clearly fought to keep Flynn, confident in his control of the administration and the grip of Republican loyalists in Congress.
The US intelligence agencies struck back, however, through an ever greater flow of leaks to the press, until Flynn’s position was untenable. The same leaks also suggest that the foundations of the whole administration are shaky.
Numerous reports suggest Trump intended to lift sanctions on Moscow and executive orders were drafted in his first week in the White House, only to be deferred after protests from congressional Republicans. They have started work on legislation that would take control over such sanctions out of the president’s hands.
In a leak to CNN on Friday, intelligence officials indicated they have confirmed at least some of the allegations in reports given to the FBI by a former MI6 officer last year.
They could not corroborate the suggestion that Russian intelligence had personally compromising material on Trump from his behaviour on trips to Russia, but they had independent evidence of contacts between Trump’s entourage and Russian officials.
Ultimately, the questions may only be answered in congressional inquiries. But those have not properly got off the ground because Republicans don’t want to hamper Trump while he is fast-tracking much of the party’s social and economic agenda.
If the leaks continue at their present rate, however, it is possible Republicans will decide Trump is more of a liability than an asset. That moment has not been reached but Flynn’s fall has brought it closer.