Flynn’s most controversial act came after the Obama administration announced Russia sanctions on Dec. 29. At that point, President Barack Obama had exactly 22 days left in office. This isn’t usually the juncture at which administrations launch new foreign-policy ventures, for the obvious reason that they aren’t going to constitute the government of the United States much longer.
Usually, everyone realizes that the incoming administration has its own prerogatives that deserve respect. When the outgoing administration of George H.W. Bush embarked on the humanitarian intervention in Somalia in December 1992, it coordinated with the incoming Clinton team, which supported and continued the mission.
Obama’s sanctions weren’t undertaken in a cooperative spirit — in fact, the opposite. As The New York Times reported at the time, it appeared Obama “intended to box in President-elect Trump, who will now have to decide whether to lift the sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies when he takes office next month.”
Flynn’s resulting communications with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, wouldn’t be considered an outrage in a less poisonous political environment.
One, Flynn had no power to vitiate the Obama sanctions in late December 2016. All he could do was urge the Russians, in the words of Mueller’s statement of offense, “not to escalate the situation and only respond to the US in a reciprocal manner.”
It’s hard to see how asking for a reciprocal response from the Russians undermined Obama’s policy, unless the entire point was to create a spiraling blow-up with the Kremlin at the outset of the new administration.
Two, the message Flynn delivered couldn’t have been news to the Russians. Trump had been broadcasting as loudly as possible for a year-and-a-half that he wanted a rapprochement with the Russians, and he tweeted praise of Vladimir Putin after Russia didn’t retaliate.