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Opinion Mike Flynn: Strike two

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn delivers a speech on the first day of the Republican National Convention last July at Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

As President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn has played a critical role in assembling the national security team. Reports suggested that he nixed a number of candidates. Once selected, he would have been the one to make sure that nominees were prepared, understood Trump’s views and knew the pet issues of each senator. Someone forgot to do that, or did it poorly, for Rex W. Tillerson, Trump’s pick for secretary of state. His rocky hearing performance has jeopardized his confirmation (although smart money still has him getting through). So building and preparing the national security team: Strike one.

Now we learn that Flynn, who does not require Senate confirmation to build out the National Security Council, is woefully behind. One staffer, Monica Crowley, already backed out after plagiarism allegations surfaced. The Hill, among other outlets, reports:

Donald Trump has asked roughly 50 senior Obama administration officials to remain in their roles in order to “ensure the continuity of government,” spokesman Sean Spicer said Thursday.

The decision comes as Trump is reportedly struggling to fill important posts in his new administration.  Among the Obama holdovers are key national security officials, including Brett McGurk, special envoy to the global coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The move is somewhat surprising, given Trump’s repeated criticism of Obama’s effort to combat the terrorist group. He called the president “the founder of ISIS” during a campaign event last April.
. . . Of the 690 administration posts that require Senate confirmation, only 29 have been named. That includes key staff roles at the NSC and Pentagon, raising concerns about the incoming administration’s ability to handle national emergencies, such as potential terrorist attacks or catastrophic weather events.

Likewise, the Daily Beast reports: “Obama officials complained privately and publicly that they hadn’t had much time to do a handoff because there was no one to hand off to, and some are getting eleventh-hour requests to stay on, but they’ve already made other plans. They warned that the uncertainty in staffing could complicate President-elect Donald Trump’s response to an early post-inauguration national security crisis, like a North Korea missile launch, perhaps to test Trump’s tweeted claim that North Korea won’t be able to develop nuclear launch capability under his watch.” One Obama official griped about “briefing incoming NSC staff for sensitive jobs in counterterrorism and the cyberfront at the National Security Council, only to have them fired or forced to withdraw by Team Trump—Monica Crowley the most public recent example.” So Flynn on completing the national security team: Strike two.

We spoke to multiple people involved in the Obama-Bush 43 handoff. They do not claim to recall precisely how many people had been hired, ready to go on Jan. 20, 2009, but none recalls this kind of  Trump slow-motion train. As of today at NSC, Trump has not filled a slew of senior director and director level jobs. At the Defense Department, Trump has not named deputies, undersecretaries and assistant secretaries (even though James N. Mattis has been considered a slam dunk from the start). We see no sign that the State Department is in any better shape, with even Tillerson’s confirmation up in the air. Fortunately, the CIA (with fewer political appointees) and the military that will report up the chain of command to Mattis provide continuity and competence.

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Maybe the new administration will send out a flood of appointments/nominations within the next couple of days. One nevertheless has to question whether Trump’s right-hand man, Flynn, has been firing on all cylinders. Did he meet political interference in making selections, did he nix a bunch of candidates or did the president-elect’s “chaos” management system slow things down? Maybe it’s some or all of these. Part of the delay is attributable to a changeover in the transition team. Actual meetings between the Trump team and the Obama NSC did not start until January.

Surely Trump lays claim to the least professional transition process in recent memory. This happens when no one in the president-elect’s  inner circle has White House experience, he picks family members and billionaire businessmen for top jobs and he spends time at rallies and on Twitter. Stephen K. Bannon has never worked in government. Reince Priebus has been a political operative, never serving in a White House or even a congressional office. Jared Kushner is a 36-year-old real estate mogul.

The White House is nothing like a family-owned real estate business. No one in Trump Land has ever staffed up a national security team. An amateur president has picked an amateur secretary of state nominee and a national security adviser who never operated at this level. (Flynn has never worked in the NSC or in any White House post.)

The White House surely could use more experienced hands, a smoother operation and a sense of urgency. (Maybe Trump should hire some defense deputy secretaries and No. 2 and No. 3 people at the State Department who know this inside and out?) Should anything, God forbid, occur while the Trump team is still figuring out who to pick for key roles and collecting information to obtain security clearances, both Flynn and Trump — not to mention the country — will be in deep trouble.