Increasingly, the central question about Michael Flynn’s tenure as national security adviser is not how it ended so soon but how it ever began in the first place.
Earlier this week, Flynn—who was forced to resign February 13, just three weeks into his job—filed forms with the Justice Department saying he had done work from August to November “that could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.” U.S. citizens who lobby for overseas governments are legally required to file paperwork under the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Flynn’s firm received $530,000 for the work.
On Thursday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer was asked whether the Trump administration was aware of Flynn’s lobbying when he was selected to be national security adviser. “I don’t believe that that was known,” he said. On Friday, however, the Associated Press reported that the White House had confirmed that the Trump transition team knew before Inauguration Day that Flynn might be required to register as a foreign agent. In fact, on November 18, mere days after the 2016 election, Representative Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, wrote a letter to Vice President-Elect Mike Pence inquiring about Flynn’s ties to the Turkish government.
In fact, it would be laughable if Trump officials had not known, since a simple Google search could have tipped them off. On Election Day, Flynn published an op-ed in The Hill floridly praising Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a crucial ally against ISIS and calling for the U.S. to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader and former Erdogan ally who lives in the U.S., and whom Erdogan blamed for instigating a failed 2016 coup. Flynn complained that Barack Obama had kept Erdogan at arm’s length.
Flynn’s take was particularly surprising because he had cheered the coup on earlier in the year. “That is worth clapping for,” he said in Cleveland, adding that Erdogan “is actually very close to President Obama.” He had also complained to Seymour Hersh that Turkey hadn’t done enough to stop the flow of arms to ISIS.
Several days after the op-ed was published, The Daily Caller reported that Flynn had been hired as a lobbyist Inovo BV, a Dutch firm founded by a Turkish businessman close to Erdogan. Other outlets soon confirmed the story. Six days after the Caller’s report, Trump announced that he was naming Flynn as national security adviser.
During Friday’s White House briefing, Spicer downplayed the matter, arguing that Flynn’s decision to file (or not) was a matter for a private citizen and not the White House’s business. Each time a reporter asked whether this should have raised a red flag about Flynn’s selection to lead the National Security Council, Spicer insisted that all that mattered was whether Flynn personally followed the law, not how the handling reflected on the White House.
The fluctuating story this week raise several questions. Was Trump content hiring as his top national-security aide a man who had up until that moment been under contract to lobby for a foreign government—especially one so intermeshed with U.S. decision-making in the Middle East? Was the president personally aware of the lobbying, and if not, why did no one tell him? And why did Spicer say on Thursday that the administration had not known? Was he lying, or was he left twisting in the wind by White House officials who didn’t keep him informed? (Given the factional infighting in the White House and the administration’s penchant for needless lies, both are distinct possibilities.)
The broader question, and one that Spicer repeatedly tried to dismiss on Friday is about the president’s judgment: How on earth was Flynn ever appointed national security adviser?
Flynn’s lobbying on behalf of Turkey was not the only potentially disqualifying problem. For example, the retired general had shared bogus news items on several occasions, and his son was fired from the Trump transition effort for pumping a preposterous conspiracy theory about Clinton aides running a child-prostitution ring out of a D.C. pizzeria.
Flynn’s tenure at the Defense Intelligence Agency should probably have given Trump some pause about appointing him. His brief and hectic stint directing DIA ended with his firing by the Obama administration, which probably made him a more alluring hire for Trump but should have given pause instead. Flynn’s term suggested that while he was a brilliant intelligence officer, he was ill-suited to the management tasks required of a national security adviser.
Finally, there was the matter of Flynn’s ties to Russia, which ultimately caused his firing. In 2013, while still in uniform, he met with Russian intelligence officials, despite skepticism of many American officials. In November 2015, he traveled there for a celebration of RT, the Kremlin-backed news channel, against the advice of friends and colleagues. And during the presidential transition, Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador to the United States, discussing sanctions levied on the Russian government by the Obama administration. Flynn then lied about those conversations, both to the public and to Pence, who repeated the denial in a CBS News interview before the election. Trump reportedly learned that Flynn had lied to Pence on January 26, but Flynn was not forced to resign until that became public knowledge.
Looking back now, Flynn’s appointment is nearly incredible—a deeply unwise choice that has reflected poorly on the White House. There is a system that is designed to avoid such catastrophic executive-branch appointments: Nominees are subject to Senate approval, which involves extensive disclosure and investigation, and sometimes forces flawed nominees to withdraw. (Just ask Andy Puzder or Tom Daschle or Linda Chavez.)
The job of the national security adviser, however, is not subject to Senate confirmation. In April 1980, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee considered whether the job should be subject to Senate approval, given the growing role and budget afforded to the post. Ultimately, the Senate opted against. Today, given the growing size, importance, and budget of the National Security Council, and given the Flynn debacle, perhaps the Senate should reconsider that decision.