The Trump administration’s national security leadership was thrown into disarray Monday when retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn resigned under pressure after less than a month on the job. Flynn will go down as the national security adviser with the shortest tenure in modern history, and his resignation is the end of his remarkable comeback story.
Flynn’s departure will have ripple effects throughout Washington and the international community, and its long-term impact on the Trump administration’s foreign policy will take time to play out. In the short term, here are some of the early winners and losers.
White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon — Inside the White House, officials describe the dynamic not as a team of rivals, but as rival teams. Bannon has been busily assembling a formidable policy team of his own, called the Strategic Initiatives Group, that was already shaping up as a competitor to Flynn’s National Security Council staff. Bannon is also known to have a keen interest in major national security issues including Asia policy, the rebuilding of the military and cooperation with European parties that share his populist, nationalist ideology. Bannon is a permanent member of the National Security Council and will attend all Principal Committee meetings. The New York Times reported that Bannon was pushing for Flynn’s resignation since Friday. Bannon is well positioned to fill the influence vacuum on national security created by Flynn’s sudden departure.
Defense Secretary James Mattis — The highly anticipated coming power struggle between the four-star Pentagon chief and the three-star national security adviser has now been overtaken by events. The two had differing views on key issues, including Russia and the Iran deal. Mattis and Flynn already had some disagreements over who would get key positions in the Pentagon and the defense intelligence community. The Washington Post is reporting that Vice Adm. Robert Harward, a former deputy to Mattis at U.S. Central Command, is the leading candidate to replace Flynn. Working together, they could speed up the filling-out of the national security senior leadership and align the White House and Defense Department in a uniquely efficient way.
The intelligence community — There’s no doubt that large parts of the intelligence community are breathing a sigh of relief today. Flynn, who spent three decades as a top intelligence officer, certainly had allies there and even stacked his NSC staff with many of his intel buddies. But Flynn’s career in the intelligence community was controversial. He was dismissed during the Obama administration from his job as Defense Intelligence Agency director amid accusations of mismanagement. Flynn had strong ideas about reorganizing the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that bureaucrats in those agencies might not have agreed with. There are anecdotal reports of senior intelligence officers withholding information from the White House out of concern about ties with the Kremlin. Now members of the intelligence community don’t have to worry about what Flynn means for them.
Russia hawks — Throughout the campaign, President Trump declined to criticized the Russian government and as recently as last month indicated that he was seeking a deal to remove at least some of the sanctions on Russia. Congressional action to prevent that from happening could now be strengthened. Ongoing investigations into Russian meddling in the presidential election should get more support. Lawmakers are already calling for expanded inquiries into Flynn’s Russia ties specifically. It’s no coincidence that Russian lawmakers are already flocking to Flynn’s defense. Trump’s effort to improve U.S. relations with Moscow will be under the microscope going forward. Republicans who believe Russia must stay an adversary and Democrats who are now politically motivated to demonize the Kremlin have new fodder that they can use for a long time.
Congressional Democrats — Democrats set their sights on Flynn early because of his highly political tone during the campaign and his calls to “Lock her up.” In recent days, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and House Intelligence Committee ranking Democrat Adam Schiff (Calif.) led the charge calling for Flynn to go. Now that it has been shown there is a level of pressure the White House will respond to, Democrats have incentive to use this tactic again in the future.
The Syrian opposition — Internally, Flynn and his staff were the drivers behind a policy review that was seeking ways to partner with Russia to fight terrorism in Syria, something Trump has often speculated about. The president won’t give up on that idea, but the planning will now face a delay at least. Flynn was a major interlocutor with the Russians on this issue. The Pentagon has long opposed cooperating with the Russian military on a large scale. The Syrian opposition, which is dreading a joint U.S.-Russian military mission that might not discriminate between them and extremists, just got a temporary reprieve.
Fethullah Gülen — Flynn was the leading voice inside the Trump administration advocating for extraditing the Turkish religious figure, who is living in exile in rural Pennsylvania. The day of the election, Flynn wrote an op-ed likening Gülen’s movement to a “dangerous sleeper terror network.” Flynn’s consulting firm had as a client a Turkish billionaire who is close to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has demanded the United States hand over Gülen. Gülen’s ability to stay in the United States looks a lot more secure now.
Vice President Pence — Nobody in the Trump administration is going to give Pence anything but the entire truth for a very long time.
Vladimir Putin — The Russian president and his government spent a lot of time investing in their relationship with Flynn. Putin and Flynn sat next to each other at a dinner in Moscow in 2015. Flynn later revealed he took money to speak at the event, which was hosted by the Russian state propaganda outlet RT. Flynn’s calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were a key channel between Trump and Putin. Putin just lost his greatest point of access inside the White House.
The NSC staff — Flynn had assembled a team of mostly former military intelligence officials who have known him for decades and surely believed they were going to work for him for more than three weeks. The New York Times reports that Flynn’s deputy, K.T. McFarland, may not stay at the National Security Council when Flynn’s permanent replacement is found. Flynn ally retired Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, if not chosen as that replacement, could also go. That leaves dozens of career professionals still working in the White House with no clear leadership or direction. The traditional role of the NSC staff as the coordinator of the interagency national security policy process will also be delayed until new leadership is in place.
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus — The handling of the Flynn episode played out chaotically in real time, with top White House officials giving seemingly contradictory statements about Flynn’s status within an hour of each other on Monday afternoon. The White House also now faces questions about its handling of information given to White House counsel Donald McGahn by the Justice Department weeks ago expressing concerns that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Priebus was already facing criticism about his performance as chief of staff and now must defend the White House’s handling of the Flynn episode while still consolidating his own power.
Kim Jong Un — The North Korean leader’s tempter-tantrum missile launch has been bumped right off of the front page, depriving the young leader of some its intended effect.
Michael Flynn — “Washington, D.C. can be a rough town for honorable people,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif). Flynn made a long-odds bet last year on a candidate nobody expected to win. For Flynn, it was a remarkable comeback story after his three-decade career of military service was interrupted at its pinnacle. He took a huge risk, was loyal to Trump, earned the future president’s trust and secured a position of huge power and influence with extensive plans on how to use it. Now, Flynn is just the latest official to get churned up and tossed out of Trump’s world.