Michael Flynn
Mark Peterson / Redux

What Happened to Michael Flynn?

In military intelligence, he was renowned for his skill connecting the dots and finding terrorists. But somewhere along the way, his dot detector began spinning out of control.

About the author: Barton Gellman is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

Michael Flynn faced the camera with brow creased and lips compressed. He hadn’t been born yesterday, his expression said. He was not going to fall for trick questions.

“General Flynn, do you believe the violence on January 6 was justified?” Representative Liz Cheney asked him in a video teleconference deposition for the January 6 committee.

Flynn’s lawyer pressed the mute button and switched off the camera. Ninety-six seconds passed. Flynn and the lawyer reappeared with a request for clarification. Did Cheney mean morally justified, or legally? Cheney obligingly asked each question in turn.

“Do you believe the violence on January 6 was justified morally?” she asked.

Flynn squinted, truculent.

“Take the Fifth,” he said.

“Do you believe the violence on January 6 was justified legally?” Cheney asked.

“Fifth,” he replied.

Cheney moved on to the ultimate question.

“General Flynn, do you believe in the peaceful transition of power in the United States of America?” she asked.

“The Fifth,” he repeated.

It was a surreal moment: Here was a retired three-star general and former national security adviser refusing to opine on the foundational requirement of a constitutional democracy. Flynn had sworn an oath to protect and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Rule of law had been drilled into him for decades in the Army.

Now, by invoking the right against self-incrimination, he was asserting that his beliefs about lawful succession could expose him to criminal charges. That could not be literally true—beliefs have absolute protection under the First Amendment—but his lawyer might well have worried about where Cheney’s line of questioning would lead.

Flynn had said publicly that President Donald Trump could declare martial law and “re-run” the presidential election he had lost. He and Sidney Powell, one of Trump’s lawyers, had turned up in the Oval Office on December 18, 2020, with a draft executive order instructing the Defense Department to seize the voting machines that recorded Trump’s defeat. Flynn and Roger Stone, the self-described political dirty trickster, were the two men Trump made a point of asking his chief of staff to call on January 5, on the eve of insurrection, according to Cassidy Hutchinson’s recent testimony before the January 6 committee.

All of which raises a question: What happened to Michael Flynn?

He has baffled old comrades with his transformation since being fired as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014. He led chants to lock up Hillary Clinton in 2016. In 2020, he posted a video of himself taking an oath associated with QAnon. He has endorsed crackpot fabrications of the extreme right: that Italy used military satellites to switch votes from Trump to Biden in 2020, that COVID-19 was a hoax perpetrated by a malevolent global elite, that the vaccine infused recipients with microchips designed for mind control.

Has Flynn always been susceptible to paranoid conspiracies? Or did something happen along the way that fundamentally shifted his relationship to reality? In recent conversations I had with the former general’s close associates, some for attribution and some not, they offered a variety of theories.

I had started trying to answer these questions about Flynn well before the country saw him plead the Fifth. The best way to investigate, I initially thought, would be to spend time with the man himself.

I’d had lunch with Flynn some years ago at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. He was a one-star general working for then–Lieutenant General Stanley McChrystal, his most important mentor in the Army. He fit in comfortably at the Council, a pinstriped bastion of the foreign-policy establishment, which these days is a bugaboo of his dark suspicions about global elites. We spoke of then–Vice President Dick Cheney, the subject of a biography I had recently written, and he later sent word that he had enjoyed listening to the audiobook while running. His affect was thoughtful, buttoned-down, and appropriate to the setting.

I recalled that lunch to Flynn’s brother Joe, who serves as his gatekeeper with the press, when I asked for an interview for this story. (Another brother, Charles, is the commanding general of the U.S. Army in the Pacific.) Joe Flynn said those were very different times. “His attitude about speaking to the mainstream media—or I’d say I would put The Atlantic into the left-wing media—is very negative because it always blows up in your face,” he said. “They always report things that [he] didn’t say or they’re calling names that he doesn’t, you know, that don’t have anything to do with him.”

“That’s kind of the whole point of talking to a guy, to understand him in his own words,” I said.

Joe Flynn didn’t bite.

“Write what you want to write. But we don’t necessarily want to add fuel to the fire by talking to people and then they twist your words. There has not been a time yet that it hasn’t backfired,” he said. Every story turns out to say, “‘Ah, Flynn’s a nut, Flynn’s a conspiracy theorist, Flynn’s an insurrectionist,’ all the other bullshit they say.”

This week, I tried again to seek comment from Flynn, via his brother. “There is no chance General Flynn will speak to the Atlantic,” Joe Flynn wrote. “Have a great day.”

When Flynn moves through public spaces these days, three muscular men with earpieces enclose him in a wedge. One of them moved to intercept me when I approached with a question at an event, taking my elbow and turning me away. “Don’t,” he said, succinctly.

The next-best strategy, I figured, was to watch Flynn in his element, surrounded by supporters. I went to hear him speak at the Trinity Gospel Temple in Canton, Ohio, where he served as mascot and majordomo of a traveling road show called “ReAwaken America.” It was a proudly mask-free event; anyone with a covered face was asked to leave. There would be six dozen speakers over two days, including MAGA stars such as Eric Trump, Mike Lindell, and Roger Stone. But Flynn was the big draw.

Nearly every other speaker paid Flynn homage. One of them won a standing ovation by invoking a MAGA trinity: “Jesus is my God. Trump is my president. And Mike Flynn is my general!”

Flynn stood in the wings, stage left, just visible to an adoring audience of 3,000. He wore cowboy boots, a gray worsted suit, and an open-collared shirt, arms crossed at his chest in a posture of benign command.

“Ladieeeees and gentlemen, stand on your feet and greet Generalllll … Miiiiiichael Flyyyyynnn!” Clay Clark, Flynn’s touring partner and emcee, yelled into the microphone in the style of a professional-wrestling announcer. The room erupted. “Fight like a Flynn!” screamed a man in the audience, quoting a slogan that Flynn’s niece was selling on T-shirts outside. “We love you!” screamed the woman next to me.

Nothing superficial explained the appeal. Flynn is not an orator. He does not premeditate applause lines, and he sometimes seems startled when the audience reacts. He rambles, scriptless, through fields of apparently disconnected thoughts. “He’s free-range,” Clark told me.

Some of the things he said fell into a category of assertion that his military-intelligence critics used to call “Flynn facts.” “Read some of The Federalist Papers,” Flynn told the crowd. “They’re simple; they’re amazing, amazing documents as to who we are.” He added, “Ben Franklin’s one of the ones that wrote some of this and argued some of it.” (No, he’s not.) Flynn attributed the nation’s founding to divine intervention, adding, “That’s why the word creator is even in our Constitution.” (It isn’t.)

What Flynn has is an everyman quality, according to Steve Bannon, who said he declined an invitation to join the tour. “Mike is authentic,” Bannon told me. “To them, he’s authentic. He’s a fighter. That’s big.” Flynn reminds Bannon, he said, of his Irish uncles and cousins: “He’s not pretentious. He’s one of them.”

If this was authenticity, though, it was authentically detached from reality. The animating ideas behind the “Great ReAwakening,” expounded by the various speakers, were (1) that forces loyal to Satan are stealing political power in rigged elections (2) on behalf of a global conspiracy masterminded by Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, and Yuval Noah Harari, an Israeli public intellectual, and (3) that the cabal has fabricated the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to mandate dangerous vaccines, which (4) make people sick and may secretly turn them into “transhumans” under the conspiracy’s remote control.

QAnon talking points pervade the “ReAwaken America” tour. In Canton, Clark got a rise from the crowd with a reference to “adrenochrome,” which QAnon myths describe as a drug that cannibalistic global elites harvest by torturing children.

Some of the “ReAwaken America” speakers fairly glowed with insincerity—Roger Stone grinned a Cheshire Cat grin after telling the crowd that he saw a “demonic portal” open over the White House when Joe Biden moved in.

But Flynn, by contrast, did not display any guile at all. By every outward indication, he was speaking in earnest.

The man had once had an outstanding career in military intelligence, a field that values discernment and reason, evidence and verification. Now he looked high on his own supply.

A young Michael Flynn shaking hands with a city official
In 1972, Michael Flynn received a commendation and town title in Middletown, Rhode Island, for his help rescuing toddlers from the path of a car rolling driverless down a hill. (The Newport Daily News / AP)

Did something in his history offer a clue?

Flynn grew up in Rhode Island, the sixth of nine children of an Army sergeant first class and a mother from a military family. He stood out early. He graduated from Middletown High School in 1977 as homecoming king, a co-captain of the state-champion football team, and the “best looking” senior by vote of his classmates. Thomas Heaney, the quarterback, told me that Flynn, at maybe 160 pounds, was scrawny for an offensive lineman but he had grit. He was “not the fastest guy on the field, but played hard.”

Already, Flynn had a flair for the heroic. As a teenager, he and a friend rescued a pair of toddlers from the path of a car rolling driverless down a hill. Flynn became known in the neighborhood as a “guardian of the little ones,” according to Kathleen Connell, a neighbor and a former Rhode Island secretary of state. But he also had a brush with the criminal-justice system, he writes in a 2016 book, which landed him in juvenile detention for a night and earned him a year of supervised probation. He does not elaborate.

Flynn was a B student at the University of Rhode Island but top of his class in the ROTC cohort. In 1983, not long after graduation, First Lieutenant Flynn deployed with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the invasion of Grenada. There was not much combat to speak of, but Flynn demonstrated valor when two fellow soldiers were swept out on a riptide and struggled to stay afloat. Again, he was the hero, diving off a 40-foot cliff to rescue them both.

Flynn began to make his name as a colonel in 2004, when the Army deployed him to Iraq as J-2, or director of intelligence, of a Special Operations unit called Task Force 714. The task force, drawn from the most elite units in the Joint Special Operations Command and led by then–Major General Stanley McChrystal, had one mission in Iraq: to track and kill insurgents.

They had a slow start. In his memoir, My Share of the Task, McChrystal writes that he arrived in the command to discover “painstakingly selected, exquisitely trained warriors” who could not keep track of their targets. In those early days, the task force would stage a raid, kill or capture insurgents, and fill burlap sacks with “scooped-up piles of documents, CDs, computers, and cell phones.” Unable to make sense of that raw intelligence in the field, the commandos would ship it all back to headquarters in Baghdad, or even back to the United States, for analysis.

At McChrystal’s direction, Flynn rebuilt the system. The two men shaped the task force into an “extraordinary machine,” a senior flag officer who worked with them told me.

McChrystal described Flynn as “pure energy.” He speed-walked, speed-talked, and filled bulging green notebooks with diagrams and briefing notes. Flynn, McChrystal writes, “had an uncanny ability to take a two-hour discussion or a thicket of diagrams on a whiteboard and then marshal his people, resources, and energy to make it happen.”

Under Flynn’s leadership, and with forward-deployed intelligence analysts, the commandos found that they could capture an enemy safe house, exploit devices and papers on the spot, and use the fresh intelligence to launch another operation within an hour or two, before insurgents had even realized that they had been compromised.

Flynn and McChrystal became an exceedingly deadly team. At its peak, the task force was “doing 12 to 15 operations a night,” the flag officer said, month after month. “He was incredibly hardworking, and he could see how to connect the dots.” Another admirer of Flynn’s at the time, a retired four-star general, told me that there were no illusions about the nature of those missions. “You go in the house to kill everybody in there,” he said.

In his three years in Iraq, Flynn lived in a world of good and evil. He oversaw a relentless machine that killed thousands, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the prolifically murderous leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Flynn won his promotion to brigadier general, then added a second star when he served briefly as J-2 for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in the Pentagon in 2008, a prestigious assignment. Then, in 2009, McChrystal was selected to command all U.S. and allied troops in Afghanistan. He brought Flynn with him.

General Barry McCaffrey, one of the most decorated generals in recent decades, made a fact-finding tour of McChrystal’s command in November 2009 and met with Flynn. He was dazzled. “He had a map, and he had this immense command of the terrorist forces in Afghanistan and the nature of the culture and what was going on in Pakistan,” McCaffrey told me. “I thought, God, this guy is flipping magic.”

People who worked with Flynn in Iraq and Afghanistan, most of whom declined to speak on the record out of respect for old friendships, said Flynn showed no sign in those years of extreme or fantastical views. One of his colleagues in Afghanistan was a young Marine captain named Matt Pottinger, who would go on to become deputy national security adviser under Trump. “When we were in Afghanistan,” Pottinger told me, “I didn’t hear wacky conspiracies.”

Still, with Pottinger’s help, Flynn cultivated a reputation as an iconoclast. He was best known in Afghanistan for a controversial white paper that he published in January 2010, a sharp critique of the U.S. government’s intelligence operations in Afghanistan by the man ostensibly in charge of them. Flynn was listed as the first and senior author, and it burnished his reputation as a defense intellectual, though in fact, Pottinger told me, he himself “wrote most of the paper,” and “Flynn provided guidance and edits.”

Flynn had taken a risk by publishing the paper outside the Pentagon chain of command, and then–Defense Secretary Robert Gates complained about the breach of protocol to James Clapper, then the undersecretary of defense for intelligence. “He didn’t object to the article as much as he did object to … the manner in which it came out,” Clapper told me. Clapper called to admonish Flynn, passing along the secretary’s displeasure. But on the whole, the episode raised Flynn’s profile and laid the ground for his next promotion.

Flynn spent his career in a fixed universe of black and white, right and wrong. His expertise was in connecting the dots and drawing inferences. But somewhere along the way, his dot detector began spinning out of control.

Flynn’s last job in uniform, as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, became his first major failure. He had been “a superb officer” in staff positions, a senior colleague told me, but when it came time to run a large organization—with more than 15,000 employees, most of them civilians—Flynn struggled. Another colleague, a high-ranking officer, told me that Flynn “thought he was the only one speaking truth to power.” Flynn clashed with his civilian deputy, David Shedd, and his supervisor, Michael Vickers, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, according to Clapper.

“I think he was a one-trick pony,” McCaffrey said. “He and McChrystal knew how to hunt down and kill or neutralize terrorist threats to the United States, and they were unbelievable at it, and Flynn was a part of it. Then they moved him into DIA.” There, McCaffrey said, “he was way over his head.”

In retrospect, the first signs of Flynn’s loss of touch with evidence came in this final military posting. Flynn, colleagues told me, would become fixated on an idea and demand that analysts find evidence to support it. This is when DIA executives began to speak derisively of “Flynn facts.” Flynn would say, for example, that Iran had killed more Americans than al-Qaeda had, a claim that could easily be refuted, but Flynn kept repeating it.

In February 2014, when he was not yet two years into the job, Flynn was summoned to Room 3E834 at the Pentagon. Vickers and Clapper, his two bosses, were waiting. The position was not working out, they said. He was fired, but allowed to hang on until he reached the minimum service required to retire as a lieutenant general.

“My problem was his impact on the morale of the workforce,” Clapper told me. “It was the stories about ‘Flynn facts.’ Very erratic, you know, he’d always contradict himself and give direction and then 10 minutes later contradict it. You just can’t do that, running a big organization.” For Vickers, Clapper suggested, “it was a case of insubordination” on issues relating to the Defense Clandestine Service. Both reasons for his firing hinted at an overweening confidence in his own apprehension of the world.

Flynn wrote in a memoir that President Barack Obama fired him because he did not want to hear Flynn’s warnings about the danger of Islamic extremism. Clapper calls that explanation “complete baloney.” Obama had nothing to do with Flynn’s firing, Clapper says, and neither did Flynn’s views on the Islamic State.

Flynn with hands raised on a stage

Michael Flynn spoke in Phoenix in January as part of the “ReAwaken America” tour. (Mark Peterson / Redux)

Flynn’s dissolution in recent years is a subject of considerable chagrin and embarrassment to his old brothers in arms. It is a forbidden subject for many of them, and an awkward one for others.

McChrystal, his longtime mentor and commander, is said by friends to have watched in horror as Flynn chanted “Lock her up!” at the Republican convention in 2016. He declined to be interviewed for this story. “Out of the respect for our service together, and years of closer friendship, I’m now just going to stay silent,” he told me by email. Retired Lieutenant General Keith Kellogg, once Flynn’s commander and later his White House colleague, wrote, “I have known Mike Flynn for many years going back to our days as Paratroopers in the 82d Airborne Division. As such, he remains a friend and [I] prefer to not talk about him.” My inquiries prompted many replies like those.

Former close associates of Flynn who did respond to my queries proposed varying explanations for Flynn’s behavior in recent years. One high-ranking officer said his extremism and conspiratorial bent may have been in him all along, but tamped down.

“The uniform constrains people’s political and emotional qualities,” he said. “You can misjudge a person because they are constrained by the job and the uniform.” When he takes off the uniform, “the personality that may have been constrained comes out.”

“Keep in mind, his reputation was built essentially as staff officer who’s got, you know, a really smart commander,” another top-ranking officer said. “You had Stan McChrystal, you know, holding both arms and keeping him focused.”

Clapper thinks it was Flynn’s humiliation at the DIA that started him down the wrong road. “Getting terminated a year early ate at him,” Clapper told me. “He had a grievance. And it just, it was corrosive with him, and he became a bitter, angry man and just latched on to anybody who was opposed to Obama and the Obama administration. That’s my armchair analysis of what happened.”

The humiliation of his subsequent firing as national security adviser and prosecution for lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States (he pleaded guilty, then tried to withdraw his plea, and then was pardoned by Trump) only amplified his feelings of persecution, by this hypothesis.

But Clapper has another theory too.

“He spent a lot of time deployed, maybe too much, as it turns out,” Clapper said. “He spent a lot of time in Iraq and Afghanistan chasing terrorists, and I think that, to some extent, that consumed him.” An officer who worked closely with Flynn in the field told me, “If you spend years hunting terrorists and honing this killing machine,” some people “get unhinged by all that.”

One after another in my interviews, people who know Flynn speculated about the possibility of cognitive decline or a psychological disorder, then shied away. McCaffrey was the only person prepared to say on the record, “I think he was having mental-health problems.”

At every stage of his career in the Army, Flynn’s performance had been dissected and judged by a senior rater. Given his rapid ascent, he must have been promoted at least twice “below the zone,” or before he would normally have been eligible. Shouldn’t the Army have seen the seeds of Flynn’s unraveling?

McCaffrey said that that is asking too much. There are hundreds of generals in the Army, he said, and nearly 1,000 flag officers across the armed services. They are among the most rigorously selected people in any profession.

“As people get older, in particular, and as circumstances push in on them,” he said, “every year there’s some fairly small number who have mental-health problems … So yeah, some of them go bad. But Flynn went bad in one of the most spectacular manners we’ve ever witnessed. You know, it wasn’t just bad judgment. It was demented behavior.”

Demented, and well rewarded. Which is still another potential explanation for the Flynn we see today.

Somebody is making good money on the “ReAwaken America” tour. At $250 a ticket, the gate for the Canton event was in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million dollars, not including sales of MAGA swag, Flynn memorabilia, Jesus hats, survival gear, vitamins and plant pigments marketed as COVID therapy, and, inevitably, MyPillow bedroom furnishings. Clay Clark, the emcee, is a Tulsa-based business coach who conceived of and organizes the tour; he holds the two-day events every month. Clark declined, in an interview, to say what Flynn’s cut is.

It could be that I am wrong about Flynn’s purity of belief. It could be that he is responding, rationally enough, to incentives. Flynn faced monumental legal bills in his criminal case, and there is a lucrative role in the MAGA ecosystem for someone who says the things that he says. John Kelly, the former White House chief of staff and a retired general, told me that Flynn “spent quite a bit of money” to defend himself. Perhaps, Kelly said, “he’s trying to make some of that money back.”

Then there is the lure of adulation. The latter-day Flynn is celebrated by adoring crowds. Standing onstage, he gets to be the hero once again.

Does Flynn imagine a political future? Sometimes it sounds that way.

He closed his Ohio appearance with a rallying cry.

“I’m trying to get this message out to the American people that now is the time to decide whether you’re going to be courageous or not,” he said. “I mean, this is it.”

I asked Joe Flynn whether his brother planned to run for office.

“I don’t think he’s interested in that at all,” Joe replied.

He wouldn’t be the last guy who got conscripted, however, and there is one political office for which Flynn has been on the shortlist before.

“I personally think he should become Trump’s running mate,” Clark said. “I’d love to see a Trump-Flynn ticket.”

In the closing days of the 2016 presidential campaign, when Trump flew to as many as five campaign events a day, Flynn became his regular warm-up act. “He was an amazingly popular opener,” Bannon told me. “He was as popular as Rudy [Giuliani], and Rudy’s pretty fucking popular with the crowd. Flynn was the most popular opening act we had.”

Trump, according to contemporary news accounts, looked hard at Flynn as a running mate in 2016 before selecting Mike Pence. Some Trump allies think that Flynn, who recently visited the former president at Mar-a-Lago, is back on the menu for 2024. “I think Mike [Flynn] could very well be on the VP shortlist in ‘24,” Bannon said. “And if the president doesn’t run, I strongly believe Mike is running.”

Roger Stone, the veteran operative of countless campaigns—and, like Flynn, the recipient of a pardon from Trump—told the Canton crowd to expect great things.

“There is one person who is absolutely central to the future of this country,” he said. “Absolutely central to the struggle for freedom that we face. This is a man who’s not a politician. I don’t think he much likes politics. This is a man who served his country. He’s actually a war hero … I speak of that great American patriot, General Michael Flynn.”

“And let me say this,” he added. “General Flynn’s greatest acts of public service lie ahead.”