Newsmaker: General Mike Flynn
To Donald Trump, at least, few candidates must have seemed as well qualified to become his national security adviser as chisel-jawed all-American hero General Mike Flynn, retired.
On paper, the 58-year-old former Lieutnant General had it all, from a distinguished 33-year career in the intelligence branch of the US Army, during which he earned a chest full of medals serving in theatres including Afghanistan and Iraq, to his appointment by president Barack Obama in 2012 as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency.
Then there was his ferocious support for Trump in the presidential election campaign, during which Flynn – once a registered Democrat – was brought on board as an adviser and demonstrated such enthusiasm for his boss’s world view that he was considered for the vice-presidential nomination.
The job of national security adviser, once held by the likes of Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, was a shining consolation. Appointed by the president without congressional oversight, the adviser has the president’s ear on national security matters.
Flynn, the man who had it all, was about to add a final feather to his cap. Unfortunately, he also had something else – a series of inappropriate and curiously timed telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US, secretly recorded by the FBI, which have revived suspicions that the Kremlin interfered with the US presidential election.
The scandal has cost Flynn his job, triggered a call by Democrats and Republicans alike for a wide-ranging investigation into his and the administration’s links with Russia and left president Trump looking at best hapless and at worst dangerously compromised.
Michael Thomas Flynn was born in December 1958, one of a family of nine children raised on Rhode Island by his “tough Irish” parents Helen and Charles, an army veteran of the Second World War and Korean war who made it no farther up the chain of command than sergeant first-class.
The army was an obvious choice for the son of a man who “taught me that the name soldier is the proudest name anyone can bear”, as Flynn once recalled. Graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 1981 in management science, Flynn was commissioned into military intelligence as a second lieutenant.
Promotions quickly followed, as an article in the university’s alumni magazine in 2009 recalled.
At first, Flynn wasn’t sure he wanted to be a career soldier but, as he told the magazine, “after getting to know some of the best people …. in our country, you can’t help but want to be around [them] all the time”.
Pausing only to marry his high-school sweetheart, Lori Andrade, in 1982, Flynn shot up the army career ladder. By August 2014, when he retired as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency and brought his distinguished 33-year army career to a close, he seemed to have reached the top.
Only, as he claimed in a book last year, he was “fired” as director of the agency by president Obama “after telling a congressional committee that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back”. Insiders blamed an increasingly “disruptive” management style.
Flynn responded with a counter-blast, published in July last year. The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, is a discomforting mix of boastfulness and bellicosity. Describing himself as “a maverick, an atypical square peg in a round hole”, Flynn portrays himself as a lone voice. America, he says, is “in a world war, but very few Americans recognise it”.
As for the Obama administration, it had “forbidden us to describe our enemies properly and clearly: they are Radical Islamists” and he made no secret of his broader contempt for Islam.
“Fear of Muslims,” he’d written in a Trump-style tweet in February last year, “is RATIONAL.” He was not, he proclaimed in The Field of Fight, “a devotee of so-called political correctness. I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent … America is far more civilised, far more ethical and moral”.
Former colleagues were startled when Flynn joined the Trump campaign last year, and began ferociously attacking Hillary Clinton, leading rabble-rousing “Lock her up” chants at rallies. As the Washington Post put it, “one of the most respected military intelligence officers of his generation” had “spurned the decorum traditionally expected of retired US flag officers and become the only national security figure of his rank and experience to publicly align himself with Trump”.
Flynn seemed increasingly to lose touch with reality – last year it emerged that he had been enthusiastically disseminating false news. An analysis of his tweets by Politico revealed Flynn had promoted “a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, president Barack Obama and their inner circles”.
In Trump, as The Daily Beast reflected back in September last year, Flynn had found “a kindred spirit – a brash, candid provocateur who seems more interested in upending whole systems than in fine-tuning them”.
Questions over Flynn’s Russian connections go back to December 2015, when he was a paid speaker at a dinner marking the 10th anniversary of RT, the state-backed Russian television station.
Flynn was photographed sitting next to president Vladimir Putin. It was, one source told the BBC, “extraordinary that a former three-star US general would be there”.
But that lapse in judgement pales alongside the extraordinary episode that has cost Flynn his job and precipitated his dramatic fall from grace.
On December 29, the day the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats amid accusations that Moscow had meddled in the US election, Flynn – not yet the US national security adviser – made several phone calls to the Russian ambassador to the US.
Many believe Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders and has been thrown to the wolves. Old friends, as Politico reported back in October, “worry that in his political naivete … Flynn is being used”.
When news of the calls was leaked to The Washington Post on January 12, the official line was that Flynn had assured the administration that the sanctions hadn’t been discussed. But the calls had been recorded by the FBI, and on January 23, just after the inauguration, the justice department informed the White House that its officials had been misled and Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail.
Overnight, as ABC News put it, the national security adviser had become “a national security threat”.
Flynn hung on until Monday. In his resignation letter he wrote that he had “inadvertently briefed the vice-president elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador”.
On Wednesday, leading Republicans joined Democrats in calls for a wide-ranging investigation to investigate “foreign meddling”, even as The New York Times revealed that, in the year before the US election, members of Trump’s election team “had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials”.
In The Field of Fight, Flynn admitted that as a teenager he had been “one of those nasty tough kids, hell-bent on breaking rules”.
He fell in with a bad crowd and, after some unspecified “serious and unlawful activity”, was arrested and sentenced to a year of supervised probation.
His tragedy is that, 40 years on, that story could be about to repeat itself, with far greater consequences for all concerned.
Published: February 16, 2017 04:00 AM