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Flynn exit creates vacuum Trump’s pragmatists may fill

Josh Lederman
Associated Press

Washington — The dramatic departure of President Donald Trump’s hard-hitting national security adviser creates a vacuum of power and raises a key question about U.S. foreign policy: Will the pragmatists in the administration now gain clout?

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, both known as levelheaded technocrats, stand to fill some of the void. It would be a shift that would mollify anxious U.S. allies and even Republicans who worry Trump is veering too far from traditional U.S. positions. But the duo will be contending with Steve Bannon, Trump’s influential senior adviser, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, who is already playing an outsize role in his diplomacy.

Trump hasn’t named a replacement for Michael Flynn. Trump asked the former Army lieutenant general to resign Monday night amid revelations he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia while President Barack Obama was still in office. Trump has tasked retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg with filling the role temporarily but is also considering two other retired military leaders to permanently replace Flynn.

“It’s dysfunctional as far as national security is concerned,” Republican Sen. John McCain said. “Who is in charge? I don’t know of anyone outside of the White House who knows.”

Critics of Trump’s foreign policy plans are hoping the shakeup leads to a rethink of his desire to seek closer U.S.-Russians relations and a less hostile administration stance on Islam — a tone Flynn helped to set through often inflammatory statements about the religion. Many lawmakers from both parties were appalled to learn that Flynn, in the weeks before Trump’s inauguration, discussed with Russia’s ambassador sanctions that the Obama administration was enacting as punishment for Russia’s alleged interference in the presidential election.

Flynn, who in 2015 was paid to appear at a gala for Russian state-controlled television network RT, was the face of Trump’s potential Russia reboot, designed around working with Russia to fight the Islamic State group. In Moscow, Russian lawmakers bitterly mused that American paranoia had forced Flynn out, while analysts there surmised that the Kremlin’s honeymoon with Trump was ending.

With Flynn out, it could fall to Tillerson to step into the role of chief envoy to Russia. Tillerson, who heads to Bonn, Germany, on Wednesday on his first official trip, is widely expected to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during the trip. He has long experience with Russian leaders and was awarded a friendship honor by President Vladimir Putin when he was Exxon Mobil CEO.

Much depends on who replaces Flynn. It’s unclear if Trump will go with someone having a similar world view and willingness to upset the status quo.

Tillerson, who has kept a low public profile since being sworn in, hasn’t commented on Flynn’s departure or on Trump’s early handling of foreign policy.

But Mattis, speaking to reporters while traveling to a NATO defense ministers’ meeting in Brussels, said Flynn’s departure “has no effect at all” on him.