News Briefs- February 16, 2017

National Security Advisor Forced to Resign

On Monday, Feb. 13, President Donald Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn, resigned after it was discovered that he had not been honest with White House officials about a conversation he had with Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Retired Army Lieutenant General Joseph Kellogg has since been appointed as acting national security adviser (The New York Times, “Michael Flynn Resigns as National Security Advisor,” 2.13.2017).

Though Flynn had previously denied any significant conversations with Kislyak, he had in fact spoken with the ambassador on the phone in late December, discussing the sanctions the Obama administration had placed on Russia due the discovery by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Russian government had attempted to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.

Though Flynn reportedly did not tell Kislyak that the sanctions would be lifted under the Trump administration, he may have implied as much, saying that Russia should not retaliate. Flynn then told Vice President Mike Pence and other top white House officials that the call had consisted of small talk (The New York Times, “Michael Flynn Resigns as National Security Advisor,” 2.13.2017).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had been wiretapping the call, standard procedure for calls involving diplomats, resulting in an investigation to determine whether Flynn had violated the Logan Act, a 1799 law that prohibits private citizens from intervening in diplomatic conflicts. Since the call took place before then-President-elect Trump took office, Flynn was a private citizen at the time.

The FBI interviewed Flynn shortly after President Trump’s inauguration. Though Flynn did not deny the conversation, the FBI reportedly believes that he may not have been completely truthful, which would be a felony, could it be proven. In public, Flynn maintained for more than a week that the call had not involved a discussion of sanctions (The New York Times, “FBI Interviewed Flynn in Trump’s First Days in Office, Officials Say,” 2.14.2017).

The FBI informed the White House on Jan. 26, fearing that Flynn could now be vulnerable to Russian blackmail. On Tuesday, Feb. 14, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer held a press conference and announced that President Trump was informed “immediately” by White House counsel Don McGohn after McGohn himself was briefed (The Washington Post, “Trump Knew Flynn Mislead Officials on Russia Calls for ‘Weeks,’ White House Said,” 2.14.2017).

President Trump was interviewed on the matter on Friday, Feb. 10 after the Washington Post broke the story. Trump asserted that he was unaware, saying, “I don’t know about that. I haven’t seen it. What report is that? I haven’t seen that. I’ll look into that.” In his press conference on Feb. 14, Spicer maintained that this answer had been pertaining to the Washington Post’s report and not the call itself (The Washington Post, “Trump Knew Flynn Mislead Officials on Russia Calls for ‘Weeks,’ White House Said,” 2.14.2017).

Though President Trump was aware of the true nature of the call for weeks, Vice President Pence did not find out until Thursday, Feb. 9. The Vice President reportedly learned about the situation via the media, rather than from a briefing (The Washington Post, “Pence did not learn that Flynn misled him on Russia until last week,” 2.14.2017).

It remains unclear what the exact fallout of this scandal will be, beyond Flynn’s resignation, especially considering that this is not the only Trump administration scandal involving clandestine talks with Russia. On Feb. 14, for instance, it was reported that members of President Trump’s 2016 campaign team have repeatedly been in contact with Russian intelligence officials in the last year (The New York Times, “Trump Campaign Aides Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence,” 2.14.2017).

— Laurel Hennen Vigil, News Editor

Officials Investigate Death of Kim Jong-nam

Kim Jong-nam, estranged half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, was reported by South Korean government officials to have been assassinated on Monday, Feb. 13. Deceased at 45 years old, Kim Jong-nam was 12 years Kim Jong-un’s senior, and was the eldest son of the former leader Kim Jong-il, who died in 2011.

While waiting to depart the international airport in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, Kim Jong-nam was allegedly approached by two people and attacked with poison, and died en route to the hospital.

His death was not publicly confirmed until a day after, however, as he was traveling under the alias “Kim Chol” and his identity was thus not immediately apparent to authorities. It is not clear if he was traveling alone or with bodyguards (New York Times, “Kim Jongun’s Half Brother is Reported Assassinated in Malaysia,” 2.14.2017).

The attackers had been identified through airport video footage as two women, who later exited the airport via taxi. One of the women, Doan Thin Hoang, 28, was arrested on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at approximately 8:20 a.m., according to the Royal Malaysia police.

The details of the attack itself remain unclear, as officials and eyewitnesses have recounted seeing the assailants use a variety of tactics in Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, including splashing him with chemicals, covering his face with a cloth, and using either spray or a needle.

An autopsy is being performed to confirm his cause of death, according to Chief Police Officer of Royal Malaysian Police, Datuk Sri Abu Samad (BBC News, “Kim Jong-nam: Killing could be sign of ‘brutal’ N Korean regime,” 2.15.2017).

Kim Jong-nam, once a potential successor to his father Kim Jong-il, fell out of favor with the regime and lost his chance to usurp power when he was caught attempting to enter Japan with a fake passport in 2011, which resulted in his detention and deportation to China (NBC News, “North Korea Leader’s Half-Brother Dies in Malaysia: Report,” 2.15.2017).

When he did not appear at his father’s funeral, national suspicion was heightened surrounding his tentative position within the family. Following this, Kim Jong-nam was reported to have lived in semi-exile, moving between Macau, Singapore and Malaysia and living as a quasi-playboy.

However, Kim Jong-nam’s sudden and mysterious death has raised further cause for suspicion, especially in light of his half brother’s propensity for executions and history of targeting other family members in assassinations.

For instance, Chang Song-thaek, Kim Jongun’s uncle, was executed four years ago, and a total of 340 executions have been reported as being ordered under the current administration (CNN, “Kim Jong Un’s half brother murdered with poison, South Korea says,” 2.14.2017).

Due to his fall from grace following the passport incident in 2011, Kim Jong-nam no longer posed a direct threat to Kim Jong-un’s position in the line of power prior to their father’s death.

However, analysts had speculated that if Kim Jong-un were to fail to perform his job or deviate from the wishes of powerful generals, the older Kim Jong-nam might have been summoned to step into the role of power instead. Thus, an order to assassinate Kim Jong-nam stood ever since Kim Jong-un’s succession of power in 2011, according to Director of the South’s National Intelligence Service Lee Byung-ho.

After one hit-and-run attempt targeting him in 2012, Kim Jong-nam wrote to his half brother begging for his life, and lived in paranoia of the same event happening until his death this week (New York Times, “Kim Jong-nam, the Hunted Heir to a Dictator Who Met Death in Exile,” 2.15.2017).

–Elena Schultz, Senior Editor

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