Michael Flynn is in a world of trouble.
Trump’s selection of Flynn as his National Security Advisor seemed like a terrible idea right from the start. Flynn is a retired three-star Army General who was forced out of his last job as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of an abusive management style and his adherence to what his staff called “Flynn Facts,” pronouncements that often had little if any grounding in the truth.
Flynn undoubtedly earned his three stars by being a good soldier. He was by all accounts one of the most respected military intelligence officers of his generation. He has served his country extremely well when he has stayed in his lane.
But Flynn’s operational success as an intelligence officer did not qualify him for the crucial policy position of National Security Advisor, and does not excuse his vile public behavior.
Flynn has repeatedly used social media to spread looney conspiracy theories. He used his Twitter platform to pass along foolishness about Hillary Clinton – that she was somehow involved with a child trafficking ring run out the basement of a pizza parlor in Washington DC – that any ten-year-old would have recognized as fake news. He accused her of waging a secret war against Catholics. He peddled the notion that President Obama was a closet jihadi who had founded ISIS and laundered money for Islamic terrorists.
Flynn has called Islamism a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people.” Any ambiguity about what Flynn meant by “Islamism” was extinguished by his tweet that “Fear of Muslims is rational.” Not jihadis. Not Islamists. Not radical Islamic terrorists. Muslims.
Flynn’s manic spite was fully on display last year at the Republican convention, where he gleefully led his fired-up supporters in a chant of “Lock Her Up” at the mere mention of Hillary Clinton’s name.
One would expect that this kind of unhinged behavior would disqualify Flynn from holding any public office, much less that of National Security Advisor to the President of the United States.
For Donald Trump, however, Flynn’s bizarre mental disorder was not an obstacle, it was a qualification. They think alike. Remember that Trump was Birther in Chief before he was Commander in Chief.
Even so, Flynn’s star is now in danger of falling. This time it appears that he has been caught in a lie that has tainted not only his own credibility, but the credibility of those around him, including the Vice President, Trump’s Chief of Staff, the White House Press Secretary, and others who were foolish enough to believe him.
Earlier this week, the Washington Post reported that in the month prior to President Trump taking office, Flynn privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. According to The New York Times, Flynn’s communications with the Russian Ambassador were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as “an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve” from sanctions then being imposed by the Obama administration.
Inappropriate to say the least. It is inexcusable for a key representative of an incoming president to engage in secret diplomacy undermining the foreign policy of the sitting president. Such conduct may not be completely unprecedented, but the fact that lesser versions of this kind of subversion may have happened in the past doesn’t excuse it in the present.
Illegal, maybe. Some have suggested that Flynn’s secret, unauthorized communications with Russia violated several laws, including an archaic and seldom used statute called the Logan Act. The Logan Act prohibits private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments in disputes involving the American government. That sounds like a pretty good description of Flynn’s conduct to me, but I’ll leave it to others to mine the depths of this arcane law.
Flynn’s biggest problem is not that he has engaged in inappropriate and possibly illegal conduct. Trump appears unconcerned about that kind of thing. And it’s not even that Flynn lied about it. Trump doesn’t seem to care much about that either.
The bigger problem is that Flynn’s lies seem to have caused other high administration officials to lie, or at least to unwittingly spread false information fed to them by Flynn.
Start with Vice President Pence. When asked last month about the spreading rumor that Flynn had improperly discussed sanctions with the Russians prior to Trump’s taking office, Pence answered, “I talked to General Flynn yesterday, and the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to U.S. sanctions.”
Reince Priebus, Trump’s Chief of Staff, issued a similar denial that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russians. According to Priebus, “the subject matter of sanctions or the actions taken by the Obama administration did not come up in the conversation.”
Then there’s Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary. Trump may view Spicer as a lightweight, but he speaks for the President. Asked repeatedly about whether Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian Ambassador, Spicer seemed offended by the very thought. He insisted that he had personally talked to Flynn as recently as the night before, and Flynn had assured him that had had one, and only one, communication with the Russian ambassador. Spicer then ticked off a very specific list of the only four topics raised in that conversation: the crash of the airplane carrying the Russian military choir, a conference in Syria on ISIS, arranging a future phone call between Trump and Putin, and an exchange of holiday greetings.
So it looks like either Pence, Priebus and Spicer all lied about Flynn’s communications with Russia, or Flynn lied to them about it, most likely the latter. Either way, not good.
Flynn’s own public position about the conversations is a work in progress. On Wednesday, after the Washington Post story broke, Flynn denied having discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. When asked directly whether he had done so, he replied unequivocally “No.”
The next day, Flynn’s spokesman demoted his boss’s categorical denial to the status of non-denial denial. Apparently with a straight face, the spokesman put out a weasel-worded statement that while Flynn “had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
Forget that this word salad, whatever it means, sure doesn’t sound like “no.” Does anybody believe that it just slipped Flynn’s mind that he had had a discussion of the red-hot issue of sanctions with the Russian ambassador only a month earlier? Please. If Flynn’s memory is that porous, that alone should disqualify him as our country’s National Security Advisor.
Far more likely is that it finally dawned on Flynn that he had been caught, and that his lie was about to be exposed and definitively disproved.
It certainly looks that way. The Post story relied on “Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls.” Yes, nine. None of them has spoken publicly. Yet.
And that’s not the worst of it. There’s a transcript! The New York Times reported that, “Federal officials who have read the transcript of the call were surprised by Mr. Flynn’s comments, since he would have known that American eavesdroppers closely monitor such calls.”
It seems Flynn didn’t care that his communications with the Russian ambassador might have been monitored. Maybe he thought that even if they were, it would never be known outside a small circle within the intelligence community, of which he was about to become the leader. Or maybe he thought that even if something leaked, he could soldier through with denials and charges of “fake news.”
Who knows what went through Flynn’s mind. But it seems certain that nobody, much less a hard-bitten professional intelligence officer, could be surprised to learn that phone calls with top Russian diplomats in the United States might have been monitored, especially at a time when our government was actively investigating allegations that Russia had interfered with an American presidential election.
Whatever Flynn had in mind, it looks like he may be about to fall through the thin ice he’s been skating on since he took office. He is being pulled down not only by his own weight, but by the baggage he has piled on the backs of the Vice President, the President’s Chief of Staff, the White House Press Secretary and the entire Trump administration.
He has made them look like fools, and that may be his undoing.
Philip Rotner is an attorney and an engaged citizen who has spent over 40 years practicing law. His views are his own and do not reflect the views of any organization with which he has been associated.