Donald Trump has gone about picking his Cabinet and senior advisers in much the way one might have predicted. Instead of looking for people with the highest levels of experience, expertise, and competence, he seems to be making his choices based on criteria like who he’s seen on Fox News, or who praised him effusively, or who has a cool nickname.
There may be no more dangerous choice Trump has made so far than picking Michael Flynn to be his national security adviser. There are few more important positions in the White House, and few where the wrong choice could have consequences quite as catastrophic. If we contemplate how President Trump might handle an international crisis — which he will face, probably before long — we see just how troubling Flynn’s appointment is.
It’s no mystery why Trump chose Flynn for this position. Trump is simultaneously contemptuous of military leaders (you’ll recall how often he said during the campaign that he knew more than them) and enamored of them; his Cabinet is likely to contain multiple retired generals. Early on, Flynn was one of the only former military leaders who endorsed Trump and campaigned with him. He quickly became Trump’s closest adviser on national security.
But to put it plainly, Michael Flynn is a crackpot.
Let’s do a quick rundown. Flynn, who was head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was fired by President Obama for a number of reasons, including mismanagement. His staff got so used to him believing things that were obviously false that they began referring to them as “Flynn Facts.” Nevertheless, he had a complete certainty in his own rightness. At one meeting, “Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right. His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.” Furthermore, “Some also described him as a Captain Queeg-like character, paranoid that his staff members were undercutting him and credulous of conspiracy theories.”
You can see it in his statements and writings since his retirement. Flynn believes that Islam is “a malignant cancer” that is actually “a political ideology” that “hides behind this notion of it being a religion.” He has tweeted that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL” while posting an anti-Islamic video and asking people to “please forward this to others.” On his Twitter feed, he has a propensity for spreading fake news stories from the right-wing fever swamps. As Bryan Bender and Andrew Hanna report:
But Flynn himself has used social media to promote a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and their inner circles in recent months — pushing dubious factoids at least 16 times since Aug. 9, according to a POLITICO review of his Twitter posts.
Flynn, who has 106,000 Twitter followers, has used the platform to retweet accusations that Clinton is involved with child sex trafficking and has “secretly waged war” on the Catholic Church, as well as charges that Obama is a “jihadi” who “laundered” money for Muslim terrorists.
Some of the looniest conspiracy theories Flynn has propagated have to do with stolen emails from John Podesta, the chair of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Right-wing conspiracy-mongers took a word here or there from some of the emails and spun them into allegations that Clinton and Podesta were involved in a Satanic cult and were running a child sex slavery ring out of a Washington pizza parlor. That might be funny, were it not for the fact that the restaurant and nearby establishments have been deluged with death threats and one guy took it seriously enough to drive to D.C. with his assault rifle in an attempt to “rescue” the children he thought were being held in the restaurant’s basement.
We can debate how troubling the spread of fake news is, and what it says about our society that people are willing to believe that Hillary Clinton is connected to a pedophilia ring. What we can’t debate is that no one who believes that kind of lunacy should be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office. But Michael Flynn does. He has retweeted links to insane stories like that one, and his son and chief of staff — who may or may not be part of the Trump transition team, depending on who’s answering the question at a particular moment — has gone even farther down the rabbit hole.
Here’s why this is so important. The national security adviser’s job is to coordinate policy between the multiple agencies whose work touches on national security — the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the State Department, the Department of Homeland Security, and others — and make sure that the president has the best, clearest, and most accurate information with which to make decisions. For a President Trump’s unique combination of ignorance, inexperience, and impulsiveness, it’s particularly vital to have a national security adviser who can encourage calm and thoughtfulness, and not be distracted by what’s irrelevant or downright false.
At some point early in his presidency, Trump is going to confront some kind of national security crisis. Every president does. Maybe it will be a terrorist attack, or a coup in a country in a volatile region, or an aggressive move by an adversary, or a conflict between two nations that the United States might get sucked into. He may have to make decisions quickly, with information that is partial and changing from hour to hour. He’ll get advice from all those different people, and when it’s over, Mike Flynn will be one of the last people in the room telling him what he should do. Trump trusts Flynn, and his words will carry particular weight — perhaps more than anyone else working on the crisis.
And when that happens, is Flynn going to look down at his phone, see that his son has just sent him a link to some story on Infowars with a ludicrous theory about what’s really going on, and say, “Hold on, Mr. President, this is something we need to consider”? It’s clear already that Flynn has prejudices that skew his ability to see the world accurately, and is lacking in the critical faculties that enable sensible people, whatever their political ideology, to distinguish what’s true from what’s false. So what happens then?
Let me be honest. I’m a liberal, and I’m going to disagree with almost everything President Trump does. But a lot of it will be the same things any Republican president would do: restricting abortion rights, cutting taxes for the wealthy, weakening environmental laws, and so on. But when it comes to matters of national security, Donald Trump will not be like other Republicans. He’s likely to be reckless and foolish in ways we can’t yet predict. And people like Mike Flynn reinforce his worst instincts, including his own propensity to believe ludicrous conspiracy theories.
The national security adviser is not subject to Senate confirmation, so the only way Flynn will be replaced by someone less likely to push us toward some kind of disaster is if Trump decides to push him aside. There’s no indication yet that Trump is inclined to do so. But we had better hope he changes his mind.