August 15, 2016 at 3:44 PM
The Washington Post's Dana Priest recently interviewed retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn twice — once in person, once by phone — and conducted follow-up email exchanges. The following is a condensed transcript of the in-person interview. For more on Flynn: He was one of the most respected intel officers of his generation. Now he's leading 'Lock her up' chants.
DANA PRIEST: You weren't such a public person in the military. Was it your idea to become more public?
MICHAEL FLYNN: I consciously made a decision once I felt the country was at such risk and I was advising five of the candidates running for president. They all reached out to me … Carly Fiorina, Scott Walker, Ben Carson Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump. … They would ask me about national security, what's happening in the world, my thoughts on particular issues.
I met with all of them. Some of them I met with more often. Two of them, I was advising right up to the time when the decision was made, when Trump won the primary.
PRIEST: So you were advising both of them?
FLYNN: Yes, and everyone knew, I wasn't secretly advising … I was pretty open about it. Someone would ask me for advice on something, or if I saw something I thought was important I would share it with them.
PRIEST: How did you meet Trump in particular?
FLYNN: I got a phone call from his team. They asked if he would be willing meet with Mr. Trump and I did. … In late summer 2015.
PRIEST: What was your impression?
FLYNN: I was very impressed. Very serious guy. Good listener. Asked really good questions. Was very serious about running. And this was all before, really, the primaries kicked in. … I found him to be very attuned to what was going on around the world. We were going to meet for 30 minutes; we met for an hour and a half. His son Eric came in. He was really good.
PRIEST: Do you remember anything in particular that struck you about him the first time you met him?
FLYNN: I think his view of the world and his view of where America was, and where it needed to be. I got the impression this was not a guy who was worried about Donald Trump, but a guy worried about the country. I don't think people can BS me that easily, and I was sort of looking for that. I found him to be in line with what I believed.
PRIEST: Do you talk with Trump directly now?
FLYNN: I have. I have. But he's a pretty busy guy.
PRIEST: Is there a group of national security advisers or generals [with the campaign to whom you spoke]?
FLYNN: No, it's other people involved. A lot of what I was doing [before the campaign] had nothing to do with Donald Trump, but I saw this president lie to the America public.
PRIEST: You have sometime specific in mind?
FLYNN: Yeah, when he's talking about "al-Qaeda's on the run and they're JVs" [the junior varsity team]. That was a disservice to the American public.
… And this notion of killing bin Laden. They keep going back to this decision to kill bin Laden. So what! So what?! What did it do, what did it really do? Quit touting that you killed bin Laden. All you did is made him a martyr. They're using him for propaganda. I would have preferred to capture the guy and expose how he uses Islamic ideology for his own purposes.
PRIEST: Let me ask me about Russia. There has been a lot in the news about your trips …
FLYNN: One in the military [while director of the Defense Intelligence Agency]. I went there on a fully approved trip. I had a great trip. I was the first U.S. officer ever allowed inside the headquarters of the GRU [Russian intelligence]. I was able to brief their entire staff. I gave them a leadership OPD. [Professional development class on leadership] and talked a lot about the way the world's unfolding.
PRIEST: Is that something you wanted to do?
FLYNN: DIA has offices in 142 countries. I was visiting some of our key attachés and one of them was [in] Russia.
PRIEST: Then relations got put on hold because of Ukraine?
FLYNN: Not really. People say because of [Russia's invasion of] Ukraine [but] at the same time we're dealing with Russia on Iranian nuclear weapons. So when people go, "Ukraine and Russia is bad," but at the same time we're sitting down with Russia on giving the lead state sponsor of terror a pathway to a nuclear bomb and $150 million.
PRIEST: You saw the relationship with Russia as potentially good for the U.S.?
FLYNN: No. No. I saw the relation with Russia as necessary to the U.S., for the interests of the U.S. We worked very closely with them on the Sochi Olympics. We were working closely with them on the Iranian nuclear deal. We beat Hitler because of our relationship with the Russians, so anybody that looks on it as anything but a relationship that's required for mutual supporting interests, including ISIS, … that's really where I'm at with Russia. We have a problem with radical Islamism and I actually think that we could work together with them against this enemy. They have a worse problem than we do.
PRIEST: Tell me about the RT [state-run Russian Television] relationship?
FLYNN: I was asked by my speaker's bureau, LAI. I do public speaking. It was in Russia. It was a paid speaking opportunity. I get paid so much. The speaker's bureau got paid so much, based on our contract.
PRIEST: Can you tell me how much you got for that?
PRIEST: No? Because you don't want to get your fees out there?
FLYNN: Yeah, I don't.
PRIEST: What was the gig?
FLYNN: The gig was to do an interview with [RT correspondent] Sophie Shevardnadze. It was an interview in front of the forum, probably 200 people in the audience. My purpose there was I was asked to talk about radical Islam in the Middle East. They asked me to talk about what was going on in the situation unfolding in the Middle East. … The speaking agreement was done before Russian went into Syria, which was actually more interesting to me because … one of my discussions, I talked about the attacks in France … and the negative role that Iran was playing where I thought Russian could actually have a role. The statement that I made was actually: "Russia ought to get Iran to back out of the proxy wars they are involved in," to include Syria, so we, the rest of the international community, could settle this situation down.
PRIEST: Have you appeared on RT regularly?
FLYNN: I appear on Al Jazeera, Skye New Arabia, RT. I don't get paid a dime. I have no media contracts. … [I am interviewed] on CNN, Fox …
PRIEST: Why would you go on RT, they're state run?
FLYNN: Well, what's CNN?
PRIEST: Well, it's not run by the state. You're rolling your eyes.
FLYNN: Well, what's MSNBC? I mean, come on … what's Al Jazeera? What's Sky News Arabia? I have been asked by multiple organizations to be a [paid] contributor but I don't want to be.
PRIEST: Because you don't want to be hamstrung?
FLYNN: That's right. I want to be able to speak freely about what I believe. There's a lot of people who would actually like to be able to do that but, for whatever reason, they can't. … I feel pretty passionate about what's happening to the country
PRIEST: One more thing about Russia …
FLYNN: A lot of people are making this about Russia. Read my book. You'll see what I say about Russia.
PRIEST: Let me ask about sitting next to Putin … because that's the symbol.
FLYNN: Yeah, I know, boring.
PRIEST: But did you think about what the optics would be …
FLYNN: Sure. I didn't have any problem. What I'm looking for is to make sure, in my view, I see a country that has lost respect for another country and if I have any sort of fiber in my body where I can help out to make sure they understand that we have people in our country who aren't going to apologize for who we are.
We're not going to act in a soft way for what we believe needs to be done. I was very adamant about what I said. He knows exactly what I said.
PRIEST: Did you talk to him personally?
FLYNN: No, just introduction. That's it.
PRIEST: The seating arrangements? You didn't ask to sit by him?
FLYNN: Nope. I was one of the guests there. … Some interesting characters. I found it a great learning opportunity. One of the things I learned was that Putin has no respect for the United States leadership. Not for the United States, but the leadership.
PRIEST: How did you learn that?
FLYNN: I just learned it from the conversations and the way questions were asked and the discussions I was part of. I'm arguing for the United States and I found myself with people wondering what's going on with the U.S. and I would tell them, you know, of course I'm standing up for the U.S. But it's hard when they don't have any respect for the current leadership.
PRIEST: To broaden the discussion on the Russia question a little bit, there's [Trump adviser] Carter Page having business interest and Paul Manafort have business interests there.
FLYNN: How about the Clintons? … If that's all you want to talk about, I don't want to do this anymore.
PRIEST: But that's not all I'm talking about. I'm trying to just get it out there on the table.
FLYNN: You know what? I don't know what their business interests are. I've talked with Paul Manafort, met him, but if Carter Page walked in here, I wouldn't know who he is … you know what? Look at the amount of money the Global Clinton Initiative is taking from countries right now.
PRIEST: And what do you make of that?
FLYNN: It's an incredible level of corruption. And talk about speaking out of both sides of your mouths and this whole business about women's rights, some of these countries there are no rights for women. Why do we take a dollar? Why do we give a dollar to countries that have no rights for women? We have to think about that.
PRIEST: When you were in uniform, can you give me an example of something you saw having to do with Obama and Clinton that really turned you?
FLYNN: Libya. Indecision or the dumb decision. What are you doing?
PRIEST: When you were in JSOC [Joint Special Operations Command], I didn't get the impression you were that upset. [Obama] did a lot of drone strikes and used JSOC a lot ….
FLYNN: When I was in JSOC we were still deeply involved in Iraq. We were still at war essentially. Then I went to Central Command and Bush was still in charge, then joint staff … then we had the transition to Obama and Obama turned everything to, he made Afghanistan the priority, not Iraq, and frankly it took forever to just get the entire system to change to that. … There was no recognition that we were facing an ideology that was expanding.
PRIEST: Were they being told that?
FLYNN: The intelligence system was telling them that these organizations are growing, that the ideology was radicalizing and these guys are beyond little ol' Afghanistan and little ol' Iraq and Syria. The intelligence was very clear, still is.
PRIEST: What would you have wanted the strategy to be?
FLYNN: I would want this enemy to be clearly defined by this president and he just refused to do it. This is not about countering violence extremist movements, the "CVE," this is about going after an ideology that is within the Islamic world that is like a metastasized cancer that has grown and this president has been presented that information, routinely, often, and has been shown this enemy for what it is and still refuses to call it for what it is, and until you do, you really can't have a coherent strategy.
… In fact, look at the people who have fallen by the wayside that were kind of in charge. This president has left this strategy, and Bush didn't do any better, he's sort of left this strategy up to the military and up to the intelligence community, primarily the CIA. That's not a strategy.
PRIEST: Part of your strategy, you've said, is to work with partners in the Middle East, but you've also said on Al Jazeera, "We invest too much in conflict and not enough in stability. What does that mean to you?
FLYNN: Let me give you an example. This [U.S.] bombing in Libya. So what are we doing in Libya? We just dropped some bombs on someone who we found is a leader there, maybe we killed some group attending a leadership meeting. Does this mean the problem is going to go away? No. It means were going to have worse guys. That's an investment in more conflict instead of actually saying, okay, maybe what we ought to do is … think about how do we bring some stability to these regions. How would we do that? … How are we working with the Arab world. These are all bilateral arrangements where we work with the Saudis, we work with the Qataris, maybe, the Jordanians, maybe. We work with the Egyptians, not really.
PRIEST: How would you see a President Trump bringing the Arab states back to the table?
FLYNN: It has to be a totally different conversation. It has to be one based on respect and acknowledging that there is a cost for not doing that. There is a cost.
PRIEST: Continued war?
FLYNN: It's like NATO. Why do three-quarters of NATO [countries] get away with not paying anything? They have to pay their bills. We've done a lot, for the better part of half a century, for these countries. I personally think we have to embrace this notion that President al-Sissi of Egypt said; he called for a revolution in Islam.
PRIEST: How do we do that?
FLYNN: Help them. That's the conversation I would like to have. How do we help you do that? You, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Arab world. We are not going to get any help out of Iran, even though we gave them the best deal of their lives. We should depend on some of these other Arab leaders to help out.
PRIEST: Do you think Trump is going to have a problem with that, though, because of the interpretation of many people that he's anti-Islam, that he's anti-Muslim?
FLYNN: No he's not. What did he say?
PRIEST: What he said about stopping immigration from Muslim countries.
FLYNN: Certain Muslim countries, and we have to understand where they're coming from and what they're doing … look what's happening in Europe. Look what's happening in our country.
PRIEST: But you've got a whole list … the Saudis, they're not great, the Pakistanis, who are you not going to take in?
FLYNN: Why is it that the U.S. has to take refugees? Why doesn't Saudi Arabia take more. Egypt can't afford it right now. Egypt is going to be, potentially, a failed state if we don't help them.
Saudi Arabia takes in a whole bunch of people each year when they go to Mecca. They have the capability to house a lot of people for a period of time, so frankly, why isn't that happening? They're closer to returning home.
PRIEST: What's your answer to that?
FLYNN: Ask the president of the United States that question. I think we should ask them. In fact, we should place demands on them, not just the Saudis, but others.
PRIEST: In exchange for our continued protection in the Middle East?
FLYNN: For the relationship they want to have with the United States, to continue to provide some means of security and stability in the region.
PRIEST: We provide the entire Centcom [Central Command] apparatus and troops. Would you make that a quid pro quo?
FLYNN: We're not about to unplug completely from stuff like that, but you can put a different set of demands on these guys. Our conversations have been too polite. Our conversations have been political conversations with political people who try to be politically correct and not with people who can say, okay, what is it we want to have going forward?
PRIEST: So what would be your ask from them?
FLYNN: To deal with the disease inside of their ideology.
PRIEST: And also to take in refugees?
FLYNN: That may be part of it.
PRIEST: And helping out with Syria
FLYNN: That would be part of it. … When we had the national security council talking about the nuclear deal, why didn't that come up? Why didn't the instability in region come up when they were talking about giving Iran nuclear weapons.
PRIEST: What's your answer to that?
FLYNN: Because we have zero strategic thinking out of our White House. And we have a national security structure that has lost its way when it comes to strategic thinking and strategic decision-making.
PRIEST: Let me go back to Trump's comments about Muslims because people would interpret that as not going over so well in the Muslim world.
FLYNN: I don't see it that way. I see a lot of Muslims who are actually, they want this conversation. They want this point to be made, that there's a problem in the Islamic ideology.
PRIEST: What do you think of the blow up with the Khans [the parents of the Muslim American Army officer killed in Iraq who spoke at the Democratic convention]?
FLYNN: I think he should have said it differently. Don't make it an issue, just say, the Khans are a Gold Star family and their son died, tragic. He's a hero and I think that had Trump said something like, they allowed themselves to be exploited by the Democratic Party, that would have been okay. But he shouldn't of gone after a Gold Star mom the way he did, by saying she couldn't talk, whatever.
PRIEST: Did you say anything?
FLYNN: Nope. I haven't had a chance to say anything. … I think we have such a political cesspool in this country right now. The Republican Party is no longer the Republican Party. The Democratic Party is no longer the Democratic Party. We have a centrist nationalist group of people in this country, lots of them, and we have a socialist group of people in this country, lots of them. And that's not, to me, the American idea.
PRIEST: Have you talked about a cabinet position?
FLYNN: Nope, I don't want any job. I could care less. In fact, I would be doing this whether I'm helping Trump out or not.
PRIEST: Would you close off an offer?
FLYNN: I like serving the country. If there's a way to serve the county, I'd always consider it. There are a lot of idiots out there who say, 'he just wants this job or whatever.' I could care less. There's one thing that I know about myself, I could wash dishes and be happy.
FLYNN: I grew up as a kid with very little. I could enjoy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or peanut butter crackers.
PRIEST: There are a lot of people very upset about what you're doing.
FLYNN: I know and they call me up about it.
PRIEST: Mainly it's because you were in the military so long and they don't think it's appropriate …
FLYNN: What do you do when you get out of the military, you stop serving? There are 26 presidents who served in the military. More than half of our presidents … that means that you stop being an American?
PRIEST: You saw [the statement issued by former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin] Dempsey [criticizing senior officers for getting involved in the campaign].
FLYNN: I totally disagree with him. What's Marty Dempsey going to do? He's going to take his four stars and go teach at Duke and go sit on a couple boards, that's how he's using his generalship. Okay, fine, if that's what he wants to do. But I disagree with him. As generals, a sergeant or governor or a doctor … [retired general] Jack Keane made the comment, "they get their titles from their time in the military." Well, yeah, because I worked my ass off for that. But you know what the best title is in the military? Sergeant. I prefer someone would mistitle me and call me sergeant. That's what my father was. I think it's silly and actually, what he did is just he showed his true colors as to who he supports.
PRIEST: Dempsey? Hmm …
FLYNN: That's the way I feel. He didn't go that far in this comment but I think all he did is irritated a bunch of people to say, what are you going to do for your country? Do you stop being an American?
PRIEST: What about people like [retired general Stanley] McChrystal or [former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Michael] Mullen, who I've also heard said [to you], "don't do this."
Really? Stan McChrystal is doing nation service stuff. He's serving for Obama right now. Mike Mullen is a guy, if you could take a photo of Mike Mullen voting, I could probably bet who he's voting for.
PRIEST: But he's not out there publicly, that's the difference.
FLYNN: So what? So what is he out there doing publicly? What are these guys … what do generals do when they get out? One of the big companies in Arlington just put out a little call saying, "we are looking for two two-stars and two retired one-stars."
PRIEST: What's your point?
FLYNN: Why? Because people want to use that person for themselves, for their company. That's why I didn't go to work for anybody because I wanted to make my decision for what I wanted to do. … I could give two s—s about the political process we have right now because it's sickening. But I do care about the direction of this country.
… What about all these people who were undersecretaries? Or what about the two secretaries of defense, [Robert] Gates and [Leon] Panetta, put this in your article. They got into the public discourse by writing a book. [Defense] Secretary [Chuck] Hagel, he wrote a big ol' article about how screwed up thing were, and you had two secretaries of defense writing about how screwed up things were … my book spent 3½ months over in the Pentagon being skewered. I betcha they didn't send theirs through.
PRIEST: Did they take things out?
FLYNN: They censored some things, yeah. The caused me to change things that were policy issues that had nothing classified.
PRIEST: An example?
FLYNN: They didn't want me to say that North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba were allies of radical Islam.
PRIEST; Did you argue them out of it?
FLYNN: I basically followed the directions they gave me and made the changes they asked me to.
PRIEST: Do you think they did it for political reasons?
FLYNN: Oh they totally did it for political reasons … and back to your statement about generals. So do former secretaries of defense, are they supposed to shut up?
PRIEST: They were appointed by a political administration.
FLYNN: So was I, I was appointed twice by Obama. … What if I had run for governor? Would they have said anything then? But because I stepped up to the national level and I'm picking somebody they don't like, what if it was Jeb Bush? Would they have said something?
PRIEST: What do you think?
FLYNN: I think that would have been a different feeling … but nobody wanted Jeb Bush, nobody wants Hillary Clinton
PRIEST: How do you analyze that?
FLYNN: I don't know that. What I know is it is a disservice to those who continue to serve to think that there's going to be a civil-military breakdown because those who serve, they know who they serve. They know what their loyalties are, that's why you take an oath to the Constitution and your loyalty lies in the chain of command and your buddies. That's always been there. We are a professional military.
PRIEST: Now you're out calling the former sec of state who you served under …
FLYNN: A liar …
PRIEST: And she should be locked up …
FLYNN: Yeah, she should be.
PRIEST: But some of those things happened when you were inside. Were you just suppressing your feelings because you were in uniform?
FLYNN: I wasn't aware of the things that were out now. What I was aware of is the rise of radical Islamism, the significant expansion of radical Islamism and watching the president of the United States talk his way out of it — and really make some unbelievable strategic decisions like pulling out of Iraq, going into Libya, some of the things going on in Afghanistan.
PRIEST: Did you have a personal experience when you tried to emphasis your beliefs about radical Islam when you were inside and you got muzzled?
FLYNN: I think the back and forth in the various decision-making processes that we had inside of government, where a bunch of us say radical Islamism, a bunch of groups that are expanding, expanding their footprint is increasing, Syria is getting worse. … The president is saying they are on the run and they're JVs … it's just not true and it wasn't what he's being presented.
Lots of intelligence reporting … for people to go, 'it's not Islam, it's extremism in general, that is such a crock and that does a disservice to the people of this country to make us sound like we're a bunch of idiots that we can't see what's going on in front of us and we're too weak to tell the truth.
PRIEST: Do you think that the Koran promotes this belief?
FLYNN: The Islamic ideology is a political ideology based on a religion.
PRIEST: Are you saying that the religion of Islam is violent?
FLYNN: Islam is an ideology and there's a religious component to it that's radicalized and in some cases it masks itself behind that religion, especially in our country, because of freedom of religion. … People aren't going into gay bars in Orlando and saying, "Jesus Christ!" They're not going into the Charlie Hebdo, the 85-year-old priest who was beheaded on his alter, [the assailant wasn't] yelling Jesus Christ.
PRIEST: Do you think that's the nature of Islam?
FLYNN: Yes, I believe there's a diseased component inside the Islamic world, the Muslim world, absolutely. It's like a cancer and it has metastasized and grabbed hold in a much bigger way, and it's because we, have tried to be, globally, tried to be so political correct.
PRIEST: What do you mean by that?
FLYNN: We don't want to call it what it is. For the president of the United States to say, what different does it make to call something ….
PRIEST: What about all the other people who practice Islam but are not extremists?
FLYNN: Sure, that's fine. There are Muslims, who are moderate Muslims. And there's more of them than there are radicalized Muslims and are using Islam in its misinterpreted ideology.
The president doesn't want to say it but he calls them ISIS, ISIL. What's that acronym stand for?
PRIEST: Let's talk about DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency where Flynn was director from 2012-2014]. … You were trying to undertaken massive change.
FLYNN: I got grief for it because I was trying to do something that I was actually asked to do. I was asked to go in and get DIA back into the business of supporting of our warfighters.
PRIEST: The criticism was that you were not good at the execution of that. This is a quote: "Stonewalled, undercut and marginalized." And what about the investigation [into inappropriately sharing intelligence]?
FLYNN: The investigation on me was for sharing intelligence with the Brits and Australians in combat, and I'm proud of that one. That was substantiated because actually I did it. But I did it with the right permissions when you dig into the investigation. I'm proud of that one. Accuse me of sharing intelligence in combat with our closest allies, please.
PRIEST: So why was there an investigation?
FLYNN: Because that's what the government does.
PRIEST: On Trump's anti-Muslim —
FLYNN: No he's not. No he's not. Does he say too many things? Some things, yeah, I don't agree with everything. But that doesn't mean he's not someone who cares deeply. One thing I agree with him on is, there's something going on in the Muslim world. … Why do we go through all the nonsense with security at our airport? It's not because the Catholic Church is falling apart.