So it’s “out like Flynn” at Donald Trump’s White House, after the national security adviser, retired general Mike Flynn, was forced to resign on Monday over his contacts with the Russians. His tenure of 25 days was the shortest in the history of the position since it started in 1953.
That’s unlikely to be the end of the embarrassment for Trump. It emerged that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which acts as America’s counterintelligence agency, interviewed Flynn a few days after the January 20 inauguration about his phone calls to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December, at the time Barack Obama was expelling 35 Russian diplomats over their alleged meddling in the presidential election.
On January 26, then acting attorney-general Sally Yates informed the White House that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail because his denials that he had discussed Obama’s sanctions with the ambassador were at variance with what the FBI picked up from its routine tapping of the embassy’s phone traffic. Trump, who later sacked Yates for not supporting his block on immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries, was informed of this FBI warning.
According to former National Security Agency analyst John Schindler, Washington’s intelligence community was withholding material from the White House. “Since January 20, we’ve assumed that the Kremlin has ears inside the [White House situation room],” Schindler said one senior Pentagon intelligence official told him.
Trump continued to profess faith in Flynn, who was at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida last weekend when the president and Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe conferred with aides, in front of gawking fellow diners, about North Korea’s latest missile launch. It was only when Vice-President Mike Pence, who had gone public in support of Flynn on the basis of his denials of the calls, called Flynn to account on Monday that the national security adviser was forced to resign. Trump blames the media for treating Flynn “very, very unfairly” with the help of “illegal” intelligence leaks.
The dismissal came as pundits were declaring the adults back in charge and foreign policy “returning to normal”. Trump had held a long-delayed phone talk with China’s Xi Jinping after meeting Beijing’s demand that he explicitly endorse the One-China policy, which he’d earlier suggested might be a bargaining chip to get better trade deals. Trump and his defence secretary, James Mattis, had renewed US support for the alliance with Japan and South Korea, abandoning Trump’s campaign ideas about leaving the allies to fend for themselves. Ahead of this week’s Washington visit by Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump cautioned about West Bank settlements and prevaricated on moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, though after their meeting he announced the US was no longer insisting on the two-state solution to peace with the Palestinians.
There remains Trump’s mystifying tilt to Russia, which is why he must have excused Flynn’s contacts so long. Now we’re told the FBI has found three of Trump’s senior campaign advisers were in contact with Russian intelligence agents last year. The FBI is also contacting the sources for the dossier compiled by former MI6 spy Christopher Steele, who claimed the Kremlin has kompromat on Trump.
The flap in Florida, watched by members of the Mar-a-Lago club, was only part of the drama coming out of North Korea. On Monday night, the estranged half-brother of regime leader Kim Jong-un collapsed at Kuala Lumpur’s airport and died on the way to hospital.
A named Malaysian police officer was quoted by the state news agency Bernama as saying Kim Jong-nam, 45, had been approached from behind by a woman who held a cloth soaked in a liquid over his mouth. South Korean media said two female North Korean agents then fled the airport by taxi.
Jong-nam’s younger half-brother, Jong-un, has not been squeamish about putting down perceived challengers within the ruling family dynasty since he succeeded their father Kim Jong-il in 2011. He was nominated as heir precisely because of his ruthless character, according to dynasty watcher Bradley Martin.
But it’s puzzling why he might have knocked off the ineffectual Kim Jong-nam, who has lived outside North Korea for years, has been in serious ill health, and is short of funds – he was in the budget-carrier terminal at KL airport. The explanation must be fear of an internal coup d’état, in which Kim Jong-nam could have been a useful figurehead. The older brother had expressed support for reform and an end to dynastic rule. Living mostly in Macau, he was in close contact with Chinese officials, who would be only too happy to back moderate regime change in their trouble-making neighbour and ally.
Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, known as Jokowi, is gearing up for another try at visiting Australia around the end of this month, but the domestic political crisis over the re-election bid by his former deputy at Jakarta’s city hall will continue to distract him, as it did in November when he postponed his trip at the last minute.
Voters in Jakarta went to the polls on Wednesday, with incumbent city governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama – known by the Hakka Chinese nickname Ahok – one of three candidates. Ahok’s pragmatic style and presidential backing made him the favourite until a few months ago, when militant Islamist groups started picking on his ethnic Chinese and Christian background and got him prosecuted for allegedly misquoting the Koran.
Ahok failed to get a clear majority and the election goes to a runoff in April, so the Islamist protest will continue. His rival will be former education minister Anies Baswedan, who, though a noted Islamic “moderate”, has the embarrassing support of both the extremist street crowd and Prabowo Subianto, the former general and Suharto son-in-law who ran a Mussolini-style campaign against Jokowi in 2014. Prabowo is openly declaring this will help him in another tilt at the presidency in 2019.
Timor-Leste is also entering elections, with the main interest a looming struggle for power between two of its former guerilla resistance leaders, Xanana Gusmão and Taur Matan Ruak, or TMR.
TMR, who is finishing his term as president, has let it be known he will not be seeking re-election in the vote for the head of state, which has a first round on March 20 and a possible runoff a month later. With former president José Ramos-Horta deciding not to run, it looks an easy win for Fretilin party leader Francisco Guterres, known by his resistance nom de guerre Lú-Olo.
Instead TMR will stand in the parliamentary elections in July at the head of the new People’s Liberation Party, with the aim of becoming prime minister. In this executive position, TMR would wind back the grandiose industrial schemes Minister Gusmão and his allies in the current government have been financing from Timor-Leste’s fast-diminishing sovereign wealth fund.
Gusmão will be campaigning on his success in getting Australia to negotiate a new Timor Sea maritime boundary, which his supporters say will give Dili jurisdiction over the Greater Sunrise gas field and get it flowing before the fund runs out, about eight years from now at the current drawdown rate. With conclusion of the border talks targeted for September, the first of these claims will not be tested by election time.