This may not be surprising. Or it’s not out of the blue. But it’s worth taking stock of the recent round of stories about disgraced National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and what those stories collectively tell us.
We’ve known since during the campaign, indeed even before he joined Donald Trump’s campaign, that Flynn had attended a high profile Moscow gala in December 2015 seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. That’s not against the law though. Nor is it even inherently improper. We didn’t know at the time he had failed to properly notify the Pentagon of his activities or about money he had been paid – a general officer has continued such responsibilities to the Department of Defense after they retire. In any case, while there have been reasons to doubt the totality of what Flynn was up to, what he was actually caught doing seemed mainly to be a matter of not declaring things or making FARA filings about things he would be entitled to do if he had.
For some time, much the same seemed to be the case in Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkish interests. It is certainly not good to have a presidential nominee’s top foreign policy advisor in the pay of a foreign government. But again, at first at least, the problems on the Turkish front seemed more like a problem of non-filing and non-disclosure than activities that were criminal in themselves. To be clear, in both cases I’m not saying this ‘innocent’ explanation was clearly the case, only that such an innocent explanation was plausible on the basis of the known facts.
But progressively over recent months and then especially over recent weeks a different picture has emerged that makes such an innocent explanation unsustainable. During the failed Turkish coup in July 2016, Flynn was pushing the line that the Erdogan government was an incipient Islamist regime which should be displaced by the historically secular Turkish military. The coup failed. A short time later Flynn had gone into business as an agent of the Turkish government, all undisclosed and unfiled. Most critically he was, according to multiple published reports, negotiating payments for what would clearly have been illegal acts on American soil, some of which it seems he would have carried out while running the National Security Council.
Here’s a passage from a just-released article from the Daily Beast …
Zarrab’s plight was reportedly raised by Turkish interests in a December 2016 meeting with Flynn, who was designated to be President Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn was supposedly offered $15 million to arrange Zarrab’s release and to kidnap an exiled Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania, Fethullah Gulen, and bring him to Turkey. (Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses Gulen, a former ally, of orchestrating a failed 2016 coup.)
Zarrab is a Turkish-Iranian gold trader who’s on trial in the US and whose crimes may implicate high-level members of the Turkish government.
There are also multiple signs that Flynn’s work with Russian interests lined up with or intersected with his work on behalf of the Turks. There is as yet no proof. But we should not dismiss the possibility that the two were related or that Russian interests were operating through the Turkish dealings.
In any case, the big picture is that this was clearly no longer a matter of Flynn getting tripped up by paperwork on non-filings and thus making himself vulnerable to prosecutorial pressure to cooperate in providing evidence against Donald Trump. The picture looks far more sinister. Flynn, a recently retired three-star general, was basically selling his expertise to various foreign interests, reportedly negotiating to commit serious felonies on American soil on behalf of foreign governments, and working to keep it all secret. The Foreign Agents Registration Act is very lightly enforced and indifferently followed. But knowing that someone like Flynn was in the pay of multiple foreign governments and acting as their agent – perhaps proposing to do so while he was literally running US foreign and defense policy – is exactly why the law exists and should exist.
Flynn’s work was so indiscriminate, so open to committing substantive crimes (i.e., not just paperwork violations) and so covert as to make it appear that he was up for anything, like you could not put anything past him. And when I mean, ‘anything’ I really mean anything.
Now, how is it that someone like this could ascend to near the pinnacle of the US military? The explanations I’ve heard in the past had it that Flynn was an accomplished and highly skilled intelligence officer. He did well as long as he was operating within a chain of command which could channel his enthusiasms and sometimes poor or outlandish judgment. Once he took on executive authority, as he did as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, that all fell apart. As long as Flynn had a superior to give him defined and constrained missions he was good at carrying them out. Once left to his own devices, his own strategies, it all went bad.
I’ve long thought that the close relationship he appears to have struck up with the arch-schemer and Iran-Contra scandal operative Michael Ledeen might be some key to making sense of his behavior.
But I think all that is out the door. Those factors may contribute to what Flynn was up to or what happened to him. But they’re not enough on their own. Flynn looks like a man who was desperate to make money fast and seemingly willing to contemplate almost anything to get it. Think about it – being paid by a foreign government to kidnap a legal American resident and send them to another country? Or consider, as now seems to be the case, that he was discussing taking payments to protect an indicted sanctions buster while he was serving as the head of the National Security Council – the person in the US government who has access to more secret information than anyone save the President.
I don’t have any illusions that the highest echelons of the US officer corps are untouched by greed and corruption. There is a well-tended path that top generals can and often do take sitting on corporate boards of defense contractors or operating as consultants where they can make very good money after they retire. In Flynn’s case, two years running the NSC would have set him up for putting up a private sector shingle that could have netted him a small fortune in just a few short years. Clearly, there’s more going on here than the desire to make a lot of money, at least money that could have been scooped up over three or four years rather than seven or eight months.
It is very hard not to reach the conclusion that something happened to Flynn, some clear break or event that put him on the course he was on by 2015, only months after he left the DIA.