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Opinion Flynn isn’t helping Trump on Russia

The controversy about Michael Flynn, Trump's new national security adviser, explained (Video: Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)
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All presidents suffer from a shortage of bearers of straight talk. Few aides want to jeopardize their standing with the president by raising objections and inconvenient facts. And while it is true that presidential aides generally figure out how to accomplish the president’s aims, at critical times they must tell him what he cannot do or what he must do. Those who don’t may provide short-term comfort to the president, but they damage him in the long run.

President-elect Donald Trump’s Russia troubles perfectly encapsulate this phenomenon. The failure of his designated national security adviser, Mike Flynn, to adequately prepare Trump to anticipate devastating intelligence findings about Russia (which Trump did not dare criticize directly) and, more generally, to project strength in his approach to Russia have severely damaged Trump’s image as a competent, resolute commander in chief. Even if one wants better relations with Russia (we think that ignores reality, but the president is entitled to try where other presidents have failed), the incessant defense of Russian motives coming from Trump and his transition team hardly makes sense. (Surely Flynn knows that Vladimir Putin respects strength.) Moreover, the Flynn-Trump tone on Russia and with regard to the intelligence community that will serve Trump has cast doubt on the incoming commander in chief’s judgment and even loyalty to U.S. interests.

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As Max Boot points out, “Trump, however, doesn’t offer the slightest objection to Russia’s egregious misconduct, and that in turn raises the question of why not? Is it simply admiration for the Russian dictator on the part of a president-elect who has said in the past that Putin’s Russia is ‘hot stuff’ and that ‘what he’s done for Russia is really amazing’? Or is there something more sinister going on?” Or does his erratic national security adviser, who might harbor resentment toward former intelligence superiors (who sacked him), encourage Trump’s worst instincts?

Flynn publicly echoes Russian propaganda that Russia and the United States have aligned interests in fighting the Islamic State. Flynn’s frequent appearances on RT and defense of Russia’s international conduct more generally (“We cannot make Russia an enemy. Russia is a nation that is deeply involved in the Middle East right now,” he told an incredulous MSNBC host) put him at odds with the intelligence community, both sides of the aisle in Congress, our allies, virtually every other Trump foreign policy adviser and, to be blunt, reality.

Flynn, as the closest adviser on national security, should be in a position to explain the Russian threat to Trump. He should be able to explain that Russian aggression in Ukraine and the Middle East works against U.S. interests. In fact, Flynn wrote a book sharply critical of Russia:

In his 2016 book, “The Field of Fight,” Flynn wrote that Russia was part of an “enemy alliance” in league with Iran. “They are certainly not ‘fighting terrorists’ in the Middle East,” Flynn wrote of Russia’s actions in Syria. He also said “there is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us,” noting the Russian military was establishing new military bases on its western border and modernizing its nuclear arsenal. “These are not the actions of a country seeking détente with the West,” he wrote, adding, “Putin fully intends to do the same thing as, and in tandem with, the Iranians: pursue the war against us.”

That’s all gone by the wayside. Instead, he feeds on Trump’s paranoia about the intelligence community, avoids any remarks about Putin (for example in the statement following Trump’s intelligence briefing) and any direct criticism of Putin, and sets NATO countries’ teeth on edge by downgrading concerns about Russia. Trump’s closest advisers, even those not directly involved in national security, must see that Flynn has contributed to the impression that Trump is more aligned with Putin than with bipartisan, long-held American security objectives.

Either Flynn’s judgment has become hopelessly distorted by his past career failure, or he thinks genuflecting toward Russia will endear him to Trump — or both. Either way, his actions make a successful presidency less likely. One need only see how Flynn’s adversarial relationship with the intelligence community has now transferred to his boss. Trump and the country would be better served by someone whose personal agenda and career ambitions do not contribute to presidential embarrassment and controversy.