A few days ago Politico’s James Kitfield offered up an interesting and sympathetic portrayal of Donald Trump’s favorite general, former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael Flynn. Kitfield offers up an excellent reason for why he has backed Trump: Flynn’s conviction that the Obama administration ignored him until they forced him out:
Flynn granted me his final on-the-record interview as DIA director. In it, Flynn warned that the United States was actually less safe from the threat of terrorism in 2014 than it was prior to the 9/11 attacks. In remarkably blunt comments for a general still in uniform, Flynn admitted to feeling like a lone voice inside an Obama administration that seemed to believe that the 2011 death of Osama bin Laden had signaled the end of radical Islamist terrorism as a seminal threat. Just months earlier, President Barack Obama had referred to the ascendant Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, as a “JV,” or junior varsity, team of terror.
You know what? That’s a pretty good reason for a former general to not back Obama’s successor in the Democratic Party! Flynn’s warnings about the Islamic State echoed a lot of those in the intelligence community that Obama administration officials dismissed back in 2012 and 2013. When your bosses ignore your prescient warnings, it’s easy to decide to advise the other side of the political aisle.
What’s more odd, however, is how Flynn has gone about supporting Donald Trump. There was his July 18 speech at the Republican National Convention, which Kitfield ably sums up:
“Lock her up! Yes, that’s right, lock her up!” Flynn shouted, his visage amplified to colossus dimensions by the huge video screen behind the podium at the Republican National Convention, where he was calling for the imprisonment of his former colleague, ex-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Before millions of television viewers, Flynn led the chants of a raucous crowd during his speech endorsing Donald Trump. “Lock her up! Lock her up! Damn right! Exactly right!” Flynn encouraged the chanting crowd. “There is nothing wrong with that!”
Since then, Flynn has been one of Trump’s highest-profile surrogates, going on Breitbart radio and myriad television outlets to defend Trump’s foreign policy platform.
Being a Trump booster is one thing; being an effective Trump booster is something else. Based on his actions to date, it’s not clear Flynn has made it to the latter category. For example, there are the leaks coming out of the Trump campaign about the campaign’s first intelligence briefing:
Six current and former senior officials said they were aware of friction between retired Gen. Michael Flynn, one of the advisers Trump brought to the briefing, and the officials who conducted the briefing. Four sources with knowledge of the briefing — including two intelligence officials who spoke to people in the room — said Flynn repeatedly interrupted the briefers until New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie intervened….
Two sources said Christie, the New Jersey governor and Trump adviser, verbally restrained Flynn — one saying Christie told Flynn to shut up, the other reporting he said, “Calm down.” Two other sources said Christie touched Flynn’s arm in an effort get him to calm down and let the officials continue.
Then there was Flynn’s reaction to Don King’s use of the n-word at a speech for Trump last month:
And finally we get to this week. The FBI has released documents showing that there was at least a conversation between the FBI and State Department Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy about a possible quid pro quo on unclassifying some of Hillary Clinton’s emails. In response, the Trump campaign released a statement by Flynn that starts by saying, “These FBI documents provide undeniable proof that Hillary Clinton colluded with the FBI, DOJ and State Department to cover up criminal activity at the highest levels.”
The thing is, the FBI documents show pretty much the opposite of that. First, everyone agrees that the quid pro quo did not happen. Second, the documents are not clear on who even proffered the notional quid pro quo, Kennedy or the FBI officials. Third, the front-page New York Times story on the release states: “There is no indication from the documents that Mrs. Clinton was aware of the discussion.”
The Times goes on to provide some useful context on this particular bureaucratic skirmish:
Mr. Kennedy was part of a long-running battle between the State Department and the intelligence agencies over Mrs. Clinton’s emails. As the emails were prepared for release, officials from the intelligence agencies argued in some cases that information in them should have been marked classified, while State Department officials countered that they contained the routine business of American diplomacy. State Department officials, who argue that the intelligence agencies are overzealous in classifying information, remain sensitive to criticism that they were sloppy in handling the material.
Flynn of all people should be aware of how bureaucratic politics affects all policy disputes.
This is normally the point in the post when I try to step back and offer some coherent explanation for why Flynn would decide to go full Trumpkin — but I got nothing beyond his understandable resentment about being forced out of the DIA in 2014.
Flynn’s descent into Trumplandia leads to two sobering conclusions. The first is that Flynn has failed miserable as Trump’s national security surrogate. The latest polling shows that Americans trust Hillary Clinton more than Donald Trump on foreign policy matters, 60 percent to 33 percent. This suggests that maybe, just maybe, the American people are not buying what Flynn is trying to sell.
The second conclusion reaffirms something I wrote this past April: “should Americans really trust the generals and admirals most keen on entering politics afterward?” Clinton has plenty of former military endorsers — most prominently retired general John Allen. None of them, however, have been quite as much the surrogate as Flynn has been for Trump. The quality of his surrogacy, however, suggests that at this point Flynn should be kept as far away from power as humanly possible.