x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 14 December 2017

Hubris: the fall of General Mike Flynn

The former National Security Adviser to Donald Trump faces shame and ignominy after admitting charges of lying to the FBI

Former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs court, where he plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn departs court, where he plead guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the United States. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

As he stood in front of thousands of ecstatic Republicans at the party’s convention in Cleveland last July and acknowledged their howls of ‘Lock her up!’ directed at Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, did the retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn slip up into a moment of hubris which will haunt him to his dying day?

“Lock her up, lock her up,” he said, echoing the growing chant in the arena. “Damned right, exactly right, there’s nothing wrong [with saying] that. And you know why, you know we’re saying that?” he asked. “We’re saying that because if I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth, a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.”

Today, Michael Flynn is considering a career that is finished, and a reputation that is in tatters. On Friday morning he submitted himself to the E Barrett Prettyman District Courthouse in Washington DC and pleaded guilty in front of US district judge Rudolph Contreras on one count of lying to the FBI about his conversations with former Russian ambassador to Washington Sergey Kislyak.

It soon became apparent to an astonished political elite in the nation’s capital that the former soldier who had served his country for more than three decades had agreed to a plea bargain with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team, apparently to save the reputation of his son, which has seen him name names that are reported to include Jared Kushner, president Donald Trump’s son in law.

As he left the court, to the sounds of banks of news cameras clicking and cries of “Did you betray your country?” and “Did Mueller threaten your son?”, one sign being held aloft by a protester perfectly encapsulated how things had turned full circle for Mr Flynn: ‘LOCK HIM UP’ it starkly proclaimed.

To president Trump, few candidates must have seemed as well qualified to become his national security adviser as the chisel-jawed all-American hero.

On paper, the 58-year-old had it all, from a distinguished 33-year career in the intelligence branch of the US Army, during which he earned a chest full of medals serving in theatres including Afghanistan and Iraq, to his appointment by president Barack Obama in 2012 as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency.

Then there was his ferocious support for Trump in the presidential election campaign, during which Flynn – once a registered Democrat – was brought on board as an adviser and demonstrated such enthusiasm for his boss’s world view that he was considered for the vice-presidential nomination.

The job of national security adviser, once held by the likes of Henry Kissinger, Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell, was a shining consolation. Appointed by the president without congressional oversight, the adviser has the president’s ear on national security matters.

Mr Flynn, the man who had it all, was about to add a final feather to his cap. Unfortunately, he also had something else – a series of inappropriate and curiously timed telephone conversations with the Russian ambassador to the US, secretly recorded by the FBI, which formed the basis of the tenacious Mr Mueller’s probe into him.

Michael Thomas Flynn was born in December 1958, one of a family of nine children raised on Rhode Island by his “tough Irish” parents Helen and Charles, an army veteran of the Second World War and Korean war who made it no farther up the chain of command than sergeant first-class.

The army was an obvious choice for the son of a man who “taught me that the name soldier is the proudest name anyone can bear”, as Flynn once recalled. Graduating from the University of Rhode Island in 1981 in management science, Flynn was commissioned into military intelligence as a second lieutenant.

Promotions quickly followed, as an article in the university’s alumni magazine in 2009 recalled.

At first, Flynn wasn’t sure he wanted to be a career soldier but, as he told the magazine, “after getting to know some of the best people …. in our country, you can’t help but want to be around [them] all the time”.

Pausing only to marry his high-school sweetheart, Lori Andrade, in 1982, Flynn shot up the army career ladder. By August 2014, when he retired as director of the Defence Intelligence Agency and brought his distinguished 33-year army career to a close, he seemed to have reached the top.

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Only, as he claimed in a book last year, he was “fired” as director of the agency by president Obama “after telling a congressional committee that we were not as safe as we had been a few years back”. Insiders blamed an increasingly “disruptive” management style.

Flynn responded with a counter-blast, published in July last year. The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies, is a discomforting mix of boastfulness and bellicosity. Describing himself as “a maverick, an atypical square peg in a round hole”, Flynn portrays himself as a lone voice. America, he says, is “in a world war, but very few Americans recognise it”.

As for the Obama administration, it had “forbidden us to describe our enemies properly and clearly: they are Radical Islamists” and he made no secret of his broader contempt for Islam.

“Fear of Muslims,” he’d written in a Trump-style tweet in February last year, “is RATIONAL.” He was not, he proclaimed in The Field of Fight, “a devotee of so-called political correctness. I don’t believe all cultures are morally equivalent … America is far more civilised, far more ethical and moral”.

Former colleagues were startled when Flynn joined the Trump campaign last year, and began ferociously attacking Hillary Clinton. As the Washington Post put it, “one of the most respected military intelligence officers of his generation” had “spurned the decorum traditionally expected of retired US flag officers and become the only national security figure of his rank and experience to publicly align himself with Trump”.

Flynn seemed increasingly to lose touch with reality – last year it emerged that he had been enthusiastically disseminating false news. An analysis of his tweets by Politico revealed Flynn had promoted “a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, president Barack Obama and their inner circles”.

In Trump, as The Daily Beast reflected back in September last year, Flynn had found “a kindred spirit – a brash, candid provocateur who seems more interested in upending whole systems than in fine-tuning them”.

Questions over Flynn’s Russian connections go back to December 2015, when he was a paid speaker at a dinner marking the 10th anniversary of RT, the state-backed Russian television station.

Flynn was photographed sitting next to president Vladimir Putin. It was, one source told the BBC, “extraordinary that a former three-star US general would be there”.

But that lapse in judgement pales alongside the extraordinary episode that has cost Flynn his job and could see him lose his liberty, although the likelihood is that deal he cut with Mr Mueller will see him evade jail time, ironically enough given his desire for it to be inflicted upon others he has accused of lesser crimes.

On December 29, the day the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats amid accusations that Moscow had meddled in the US election, Flynn – not yet the US national security adviser – made several phone calls to the Russian ambassador to the US.

Many believe Flynn was acting on Trump’s orders and has been thrown to the wolves. Old friends, as Politico reported back in October, “worry that in his political naivete … Flynn is being used”.

When news of the calls was leaked to The Washington Post on January 12, the official line was that Flynn had assured the administration that the sanctions hadn’t been discussed. But the calls had been recorded by the FBI, and on January 23, just after the inauguration, the justice department informed the White House that its officials had been misled and Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail.

Overnight, as ABC News put it, the national security adviser had become “a national security threat”.

Flynn hung on but he was political toast and he resigned on February 13, after just 24 days, the shortest tenure in the history of the post. In his resignation letter he wrote that he had “inadvertently briefed the vice-president elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador”.

In The Field of Fight, Flynn admitted that as a teenager he had been “one of those nasty tough kids, hell-bent on breaking rules”.

He fell in with a bad crowd and, after some unspecified “serious and unlawful activity”, was arrested and sentenced to a year of supervised probation.

His tragedy is that, 40 years on, that story has repeated itself, with far greater consequences for all concerned.