Vice Admiral Robert Harward in line to replace Michael Flynn as US national security adviser

WASHINGTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - A senior naval officer who served under President Donald Trump's Defense Secretary James Mattis is the leading candidate to replace Michael Flynn after the national security adviser resigned under pressure over his conversations with a Russian diplomat, two U.S. officials said on Tuesday.

Vice Admiral Robert Harward, who was deputy commander of U.S. Central Command under Mattis, will likely replace Flynn, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity as the White House scrambled to contain the fallout from the abrupt departure of one of the president's top advisers.

Flynn resigned late on Monday after revelations that he had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, in a potentially illegal action, and had later misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.

Flynn's departure followed days of speculation that he might be forced out.

RELATED: Possible replacements for Michael Flynn

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Possible replacements for Michael Flynn

Retired Gen. David Petraeus

Retired Gen. David Petraeus' career includes 37 years of service in the US Army and a role as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. 

In addition to commanding the entire coalition force in Iraq, the four-star general headed US Central Command (CENTCOM), which oversees all operations in Middle East.

Petraeus was briefly considered for Secretary of State by the Trump administration.

Stephen J. Hadley

Stephen Hadley served as the National Security Adviser to President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2009.

He served on several advisory boards, including defense firm Raytheon, and RAND's Center for Middle East Public Policy. Together with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, he helps head the international strategic consulting firm, RiceHadleyGates LLC.

He also wrote the "The Role and Importance of the National Security Advisor," which, as the title implies, is an in-depth study of the National Security Adviser's role.

Retired Gen. Keith Kellogg

As the interim National Security Adviser filling in for Michael Flynn, retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg was the chief of staff for the Trump administration's National Security Council (NSC). 

Prior to that, he worked in the Joint Chiefs of Staff office and was part of computer software giant Oracle's homeland security team

Tom Bossert

Tom Bossert, a cybersecurity expert, serves as the Homeland Security Adviser in the White House.

The former Deputy Homeland Security Adviser to President George W. Bush co-authored the 2007 National Strategy for Homeland Security, the government’s security policies established after the 9/11 terror attacks.

In a 2015 column in The Washington Times, Bossert seemed to defend the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan by writing, "To be clear, the use of military force against Iraq and Afghanistan was and remains just ... The use of force in Iraq was just and, at the time, necessary, even if Mr. Obama disagrees with how things went."

Retired Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward

Retired Vice Adm. Robert S. Harward is a US Navy SEAL and the former Deputy Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM).

He served as the commander of SEAL Team 3 and was the Deputy Commanding General of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Harward also served on the National Security Council as the Director of Strategy and Policy for the Office of Combating Terrorism, and is also the CEO for Lockheed Martin in the United Arab Emirates.

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The retired Army general and former U.S. intelligence official quit the post hours after a report that the Justice Department had warned the White House weeks ago that he could be vulnerable to blackmail over his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak before Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Losing his national security adviser three weeks after taking office is an embarrassment for the new Republican president, who has made national security a top priority.

Trump, a wealthy businessman, had never previously held public office and his early weeks in the White House have been marked by missteps and controversies, in particular his travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries.

Flynn, an early and enthusiastic supporter of Trump, was a strong advocate of a softer line toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and his departure from the key post could hinder Trump's efforts to warm up relations with Moscow.

Russia's aggression in Ukraine and Syria and Republican congressional opposition to removing sanctions on Russia make any White House attempt to embrace Putin problematic.

SEE ALSO: US source: North Korea agents believed behind murder of leader's half-brother

Democratic President Barack Obama added sanctions on Moscow in December, weeks before leaving office, in response to what his administration charged were Moscow's efforts to try to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump's favor.

U.S. Senator John McCain, a leading Republican voice on foreign relations, said Flynn's resignation raised questions about Trump's intentions toward Russia, "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."

SCRAMBLE TO REPLACE FLYNN

The scramble to replace Flynn began on Monday evening and continued with phone calls and meetings into the early hours of Tuesday in an effort to enable Trump to make a decision and put the matter behind him as soon as possible, said an official involved in the effort.

Also under consideration was retired General David Petraeus, a former CIA director whose reputation was tainted by a scandal over mishandling classified information with his biographer, with whom he was having an affair.

SEE ALSO: Israeli PM Netanyahu seeks 'no gaps' with Trump on Middle East ahead of White House talks

Harward, a Rhode Island native who went to school in Tehran before the shah was toppled in 1979, did a tour on the National Security Council under Republican President George W. Bush working on counterterrorism. He has experience on SEAL teams and served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"If the president goes in his direction, there would be very little opposition," said the official. "He's very highly regarded, and doesn't have the baggage that Petraeus has."

Congressional Democrats expressed alarm at the developments surrounding Flynn and called for a classified briefing by administration officials to explain what had happened.

RELATED: Reactions to Michael Flynn's resignation
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Reaction to Michael Flynn's resignation
Michael Flynn has resigned as Trump's national security adviser. KEEP SHOWING UP. Our resistance is working! #WhyIResist
Im sad #MichaelFlynn resigned but at the end President Trump did what he had to do and thats says everything.
Flynn's resignation CANNOT be end of the story. Who talked to who? When? Who knew? When? How far up did it go? How much of dossier true?
Well, not even a month in and the first resignation due to scandal, and I doubt it'll be the last.#MICHAELFLYNN
#Flynngate doesn't bode well for @seanspicer. At all. https://t.co/czu8yerodG
If @POTUS knew of #MichaelFlynn and #Russia, then we are a country in crisis now.
Brian Williams goes there: "What did [Trump] know and when did he know it?" #flynn
Dear Mike Flynn & Mike Flynn Jr., What goes around COMETS around. And given your pizza obsession... https://t.co/rmyO7wyJKX xo Philippe
However welcomed General Flynn's resignation is, remember that President Trump's Russia connections and intentions… https://t.co/Trc2oMXDor
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U.S. Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Flynn's departure did not end the questions over his contacts with the Russians.

"The Trump administration has yet to be forthcoming about who was aware of Flynn's conversations with the ambassador and whether he was acting on the instructions of the president or any other officials, or with their knowledge," Schiff said.

Flynn's discussions with the Russian diplomat could potentially have been in violation of a law known as the Logan Act, banning private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in relation to disputes or controversies with the United States.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu and Susan Heavey; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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