The Trump administration is beginning to take shape. With the president-elect’s announcement of his choice for National Security Advisor, America has gotten its first glimpse at how a Trump administration will approach defense and security-related issues. Unfortunately, Trump’s choice for NSA, Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, is deeply unsettling. Flynn may not be capable of dispassionately advising the president on matters related to the protection and preservation of American national interests.
Flynn has made a name for himself as a straight shooter and a farsighted soldier with a keen eye on the radical Islamist terror threat. In 2010, he blew the whistle on America’s deteriorating position in Afghanistan, compelling the president to devote more attention and resources to that conflict. As director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, he warned his colleagues that Osama bin Laden’s death had not neutralized the terrorist threat. The administration didn’t want to hear this admonition, but Flynn was right.
Flynn was, however, reportedly forced out of his position a year ahead of schedule because his managerial style was “chaotic” and “the scope of his plans met resistance from both superiors and subordinates.” Flynn’s opposition to departmental budget cuts and his reported desire to reshape the DIA into a participant in—rather than a planner of—field operations apparently met with resistance, too, but those traits do not necessarily make for a problematic NSA. Rather, it is Flynn’s objective conflicts of interest and his dubious judgment that have observers concerned.
The retired lieutenant general has a bizarrely close relationship with key elements of Vladimir Putin’s power structure in Russia. He frequently appeared on the Kremlin-funded news network RT and even attended an anniversary gala for the network where he was seated directly next to the Russian President. Flynn has defended the network by insisting that it is not Kremlin-run (it is) and then defended the practice of state-run media by contending that CNN and MSNBC are RT’s equivalents. Flynn has claimed that Putin is a “totalitarian dictator and a thug who does not have our interests in mind,” but legitimizing that thug’s propaganda outlet is an odd way to display contempt.
Flynn’s antipathy toward CNN led him to retweet a critic of the network: “The USSR is to blame,” the original tweeter asserted sarcastically linking to a report on Russia’s hand in the hacking of Democratic National Committee servers. “Not anymore, Jews. Not anymore.” To this, the general favorably replied, “The corrupt Democratic machine will do and say anything to get #NeverHillary into power. This is a new low.”
It is unclear whether Flynn has ever taken money directly from RT and, thus, the Russian government. He will not say. But Flynn was compensated by the Flynn Intel Group, where he serves as a principal and which has registered as a lobbying firm for a Dutch company owned by a Turkish businessman with close ties to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The relationship is more than professional, apparently. Flynn has called for the extradition to Turkey of the cleric Fethullah Gülen, whom he called a “shady Islamic mullah” who lives in exile in the Poconos and on whom Erdogan has blamed a failed July coup attempt (among a host of other sins).
As NSA, Flynn promises to sever his ties to that firm, but he was already sitting in on classified intelligence briefings with then-candidate Donald Trump with these relationships intact. The conflict of interest and Flynn’s dereliction of responsibility in this matter is so significant that a revolt inside the national-security community may be brewing. Norm Eisen, President Barack Obama’s ethics advisor and ambassador to the Czech Republic told Yahoo News that, if Flynn became NSA, “there will be wholesale resignations of national security professionals, and I believe some have already drafted their resignation letters.” Given the number of Republican national security professionals who publicly opposed Trump in the campaign, the president-elect cannot afford to sacrifice any available talent.
There are times when Flynn can devolve from “straight talker” unfettered by the constraints of “politically correct speech” to the unrestrained id of the online right’s most cloistered and conspiratorial fringe.
The general has reportedly come to the conclusion that the Islamic Sharia Law is on the march in the United States. That is just one of what Flynn’s DIA subordinates derisively dubbed “Flynn Facts” during his tenure. “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” Flynn insisted in a tweet. He also demanded his followers watch a video contending that Muslims seek the enslavement or extermination of non-believers and that a fearful response to that religion’s practitioners was only natural and sane.
Flynn later shared an image of Hillary Clinton wearing a head scarf while on a state visit to the Muslim world and insisted that “This is not showing respect.” He added: “This is showing disrespect for American values and principles.” In the wake of the deadly truck attack in Nice, France, the general tweeted: “In the next 24 hours, I dare Arab & Persian world ‘leaders’ to step up to the plate and declare their Islamic ideology sick and must B healed.”
It is the job of the National Security Advisor to be a clear-eyed voice for American security priorities around the world. Flynn would step into a role previously filled by venerable figures like Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Henry Kissinger, and Condoleezza Rice. His strange fits of rage, his bizarre misjudgments, his checkered history, and his conflicts of interest make President-elect Trump’s choice for NSA a dubious one. This choice reflects what may be a core Trump conviction—that America’s place in the world as the sole global hegemon can and should be ceded to rising regional powers and the greatest threat to U.S. security are non-state actors. This is a short-sighted and defeatist worldview. Let’s hope the reality of governing as president compels President Trump to abandon it.