WASHINGTON -- The White House says U.S. President Donald Trump asked his national security adviser Michael Flynn to resign due to an "eroding level of trust" linked to his phone calls with Russia's ambassador in Washington, but does not see a "legal issue" in the matter.
The comments by White House spokesman Sean Spicer on February 14 came less than 24 hours after Flynn resigned amid accusations that he misled Trump administration officials about his December phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak.
The resignation has jolted Washington, with both Democratic and Republican lawmakers calling for investigations into possible ties between the Russian government and Trump's advisers.
Trump on February 14 denounced leaks of information that preceded Flynn's resignation. "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?" Trump tweeted.
Senior Russian lawmakers, meanwhile, reacted swiftly, casting Flynn as a casualty in a campaign to undermine any efforts by Trump to mend badly strained relations with Moscow.
At the time of Flynn's calls with Kislyak, which were intercepted by U.S. intelligence, then-President Barack Obama was preparing fresh sanctions against Moscow in response to alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
Flynn initially told Vice President Mike Pence that he did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak during the conversations, which were intercepted by U.S. intelligence.
Flynn's assurances led Pence to vouch for the former general in a television interview. But in his resignation letter, Flynn said he gave Pence and others "incomplete information" about the telephone calls.
Spicer told a February 14 news briefing that Trump and White House counsel had been examining Flynn's situation for several weeks, and that the president's request for his resignation ultimately was not due to due to "a legal issue but a trust issue."
"There is nothing that the general did that was a violation of any sort. He was well within his duties to discuss issues of common concern between the two countries," Spicer said.
The White House named retired General Keith Kellogg to replace Flynn as acting security adviser. He is also among three people the White House said Trump is considering naming to the post permanently. The other two are former CIA Director David Petraeus and Vice Admiral Robert Harward.
The resignation came amid allegations that the White House may have known more than officials have publicly acknowledged about the phone conversations.
The Associated Press and Reuters news agencies both reported late on February 13 that the U.S. Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn could be in a compromised position as a result of the contradictions between his public depictions of the calls and what intelligence officials knew to be true based on recordings of the conversations, which were picked up as part of the routine monitoring of foreign officials' communications in the United States.
The Washington Post reported last week that Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian envoy. AP reported that Flynn was in frequent contact with Kislyak on December 29, the same day the Obama White House imposed a new round of sanctions on Russia over its allegedly meddling in the U.S. presidential election and harassment of U.S. diplomats.
Spicer told reporters on February 14 that Trump was immediately briefed on the matter after the White House was notified by the Justice Department.
He added that Trump had not instructed Flynn to discuss with Kislyak the issue of U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Calls For An Investigation
Flynn's resignation triggered fresh calls in Congress for investigations into potential ties between members of Trump's administration and the Russian government.
U.S. Senator Roy Blunt (Republican-Missouri), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a February 14 radio interview that the committee was looking into the matter.
"I would think we should talk to General Flynn very soon, and that should answer a lot of questions," Blunt said. "What did he know? What did he do? And is there any reason to believe that anybody else knew that and didn't take the kind of action they should have taken?"
Flynn's conversations with Kislyak have raised questions about the potential violation of a law forbidding private citizens from conducting foreign policy, as they occurred prior to Trump's inauguration on January 20.
They have also renewed questions about Trump's friendly posture toward Russia at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Russia hacked and released Democratic e-mails with an eye toward helping Trump get elected.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, an influential Republican, said Flynn's resignation raised questions about the Trump administration's intentions toward Moscow, "including statements by the president suggesting moral equivalence between the United States and Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, threats to our NATO allies, and attempted interference in American elections."
Flynn's resignation is "a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus," he said in a statement.
The Democratic leader in the Senate, Charles Schumer of New York, called for an independent investigation into whether Flynn or other Trump administration officials may have committed crimes.
"What I am calling for is an independent investigation with executive authority to pursue potential criminal actions," Schumer told reporters. "There are potential violations of law here by General Flynn and potentially others."
House Speaker Paul Ryan (Republican-Wisconsin) told reporters at a February 14 news conference that he would not "prejudge" the situation but that the Trump administration made the correct decision in asking for Flynn's resignation.
"I think it's really important that as soon as they realized that they were being misled by their national security adviser, they asked for his resignation," Ryan said.
Several Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives have called on the House Oversight Committee chairman to launch an investigation into Flynn's ties to Russia. Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer told reporters he wants an independent investigation of Flynn's discussions with Kislyak.
Representative Eliot Engel, ranking member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said after Flynn announced his resignation that he was "doing the right thing by stepping down. However, far too many questions remain unanswered about this administration's ties to Russia."
Knowing that "Putin was working to tip the scales in President Trump's favor" during the election, Engel said, "we need a thorough, bipartisan investigation to get the complete picture of Russia's interference in our election, and Congress needs to take steps...to punish those responsible."
In Russia, prominent pro-Kremlin lawmakers suggested that Flynn was pushed out as part of an effort to ensure that Trump cannot mend ties with Moscow -- or even to push him from power.
Aleksei Pushkov, chairman of the Information Policy Committee in the upper house of parliament, tweeted that "it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia."
"Driving Flynn out was the first act. Now the target is Trump himself," Pushkov said in a separate tweet.
Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the International Relations Committee in the upper house -- the Federation Council -- said on Facebook that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is "not even paranoia but something immeasurably worse."
"Either Trump has not gained the requisite independence and is being...backed into a corner, or Russophobia has already infected the new administration as well, from top to bottom," Kosachyov said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, declined to comment on Flynn's exit.
"It is the Americans' internal affair. It is the internal affair of President Trump's administration. It is none of our business," Peskov told reporters on February 14.
When asked on February 13 about the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls, Peskov said in an apparent reference to discussions of sanctions: "We have already said that they did not take place."
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said it was not his place to comment on Flynn's resignation. He added that Trump, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson "have all conveyed the same strong message" about Washington's commitment to NATO.
"I have spoken to all three of them, and they have all stated clearly that the United States stays strongly committed to NATO, stays strongly committed to the transatlantic bond, and that the United States fully see the strength of NATO both for European security but also for the United States," Stoltenberg said.
With reporting by AP, AFP, Reuters, CNN, and Interfax