Originally Published: February 12, 2017 11:50 p.m.
PALM BEACH, Fla. — A top White House aide sidestepped repeated chances Sunday to publicly defend embattled national security adviser Michael Flynn following reports that he engaged in conversations with a Russian diplomat about U.S. sanctions before Trump’s inauguration.
The move, or lack thereof, added uncertainty as Trump dealt with North Korea’s apparent first missile launch of the year and his presidency. The president was also welcoming the leaders of Israel and Canada this week.
Trump has yet to comment on the allegations against Flynn, and a top aide dispatched to represent the administration on the Sunday news shows skirted questions on the topic, saying it was not his place to weigh in on the “sensitive matter.”
Pressed repeatedly, top policy adviser Stephen Miller said it wasn’t up to him to say whether the president retains confidence in Flynn.
“It’s not for me to tell you what’s in the president’s mind,” he said on NBC. “That’s a question for the president.”
A White House official, who was not authorized to be named and requested anonymity, said in a statement Friday the president had full confidence in Flynn. Officials remained mum amid fallout from reports that Flynn addressed U.S. sanctions against Russia in a phone call late last year. The report, which first appeared in The Washington Post, contradicted both Flynn’s previous denials, as well as those made by Vice President Mike Pence in a televised interview.
Trump has been discussing the situation with associates, according to a person who spoke with him recently. The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who led Trump’s transition planning before the election, said Flynn would have to explain his conflicting statements about his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to Trump and Pence.
“Gen. Flynn has said up to this point that he had not said anything like that to the Russian ambassador. I think now he’s saying that he doesn’t remember whether he did or not,” Christie said on CNN. “So, that’s a conversation he is going to need to have with the president and the vice president to clear that up, so that the White House can make sure that they are completely accurate about what went on.”
The comments came as the White House continues to weigh its options following a legal blow last week to Trump’s immigration order suspending the nation’s refugee program and barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S.
Miller, who was one of the architects of the order, maintained in a round of Sunday show interviews that the president has sweeping executive authority when it comes to barring foreigners he deems pose a risk to the country. He said Trump will do “whatever we need to do, consistent with the law, to keep this country safe” and slammed judges who’ve stood in his way.
“This is a judicial usurpation of the power. It is a violation of judges’ proper roles in litigating disputes. We will fight it,” Miller said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
As for the administration’s next steps, Miller said that “all options” remain on the table,” including a Supreme Court appeal. Trump said on the plane ride to Florida on Friday that he was considering signing a “brand new order” as early as Monday to try to bypass the legal challenges.
“As you know, we have multiple options, and we are considering all of them,” Miller said on ABC’s “This Week.”
The comments come amid an outcry from immigration activists over an “enforcement surge” by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers that officials say is targeting immigrants who are in the country illegally and have criminal records.
Advocacy groups contend the government has rounded up large numbers of people as part of stepped-up enforcement. The agency calls the effort no different from enforcement actions carried out in the past.
But Trump and Miller appeared eager to take credit for the action.
“The crackdown on illegal criminals is merely the keeping of my campaign promise. Gang members, drug dealers & others are being removed!” Trump tweeted.
Added Miller on NBC’s “Meet the Press”: “We’re going to focus on public safety and saving American lives and we will not apologize.”
Trump has spent the weekend in Florida at his sprawling Mar-a-Lago estate, holding meetings, making calls, golfing and hosting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
For most of Saturday, Trump and the Japanese prime minister played golf under the Florida sun to get to know one another and show the world the U.S.-Japan alliance remained strong. A surprise provocation by the North Koreans provided a more significant example of cooperation.
After North Korea reportedly launched a ballistic missile, the two leaders appeared for hastily prepared statements in a ballroom of Trump’s south Florida estate late Saturday. Abe spoke first and longest.
“North Korea’s most recent missile launch is absolutely intolerable,” Abe said through a translator. He added that the North must comply fully with relevant U.N. Security Council resolutions, but also noted that Trump had assured him that the U.S. supported Japan.
“President Trump and I myself completely share the view that we are going to promote further cooperation between the two nations. And also we are going to further reinforce our alliance,” he said.
Trump followed Abe with even fewer words, saying in part: “I just want everybody to understand and fully know that the United States of America stands behind Japan, its great ally, 100 percent.” With that, they left the room.
Miller said on ABC that the joint appearance marked “an important show of solidarity between the United States and Japan.”
White House Correspondent Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.