The firing of Michael Flynn won’t cure what ails the Trump White House.
The downfall of the president’s national security adviser after only 25 days in office is symptomatic of President Trump’s ill-informed, incoherent approach to foreign policy.
This chaotic management style is embarrassing the country. It is angering our allies and emboldening our enemies. Far from making Trump look tough, it is turning him into a global figure of fun and bemusement.
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The Flynn scandal is a perfect example of the cost of making foreign policy on the fly.
Flynn was hired because he was one of very few prominent security professionals who endorsed the Trump candidacy early. Also, he was a fierce critic of Hillary Clinton’s, leading raucous chants at the GOP convention of “Lock her up!”
But former military colleagues of Flynn told me he was hot-tempered, a bad manager, extremely hard to work with – and prone to conspiracy theories. These negative qualities got Flynn fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama.
They were hardly the qualities needed to advise a thin-skinned, ill-informed, conspiracy-minded president on national security issues. Famously unwilling to read more than a few bullet points and certain he knows everything, Trump needed a steadying hand more than any president in memory.
Yet under Flynn, National Security Council meetings were disorganized and dysfunctional. According to the New York Times, attendees struggled to keep up with Trump’s tweets, which often contained stunning foreign policy pronouncements. Nor was the council informed of what Trump told foreign leaders in his phone calls.
This was not the normal presidential learning curve. One day Trump’s tweets led the Mexican president to cancel a visit; on other days he rudely insulted the Australian and French prime ministers on the telephone. The president veered forward and backward, tweeting threats to junk key elements of long-standing U.S. policy on China, then eventually backing off in the face of Beijing anger.
Experienced Republican foreign policy hands were unwelcome for senior positions because they had criticized Trump during the campaign. Only weeks into Trump’s presidency, White House infighting was already vicious, as chief strategist Steve Bannon muscled in on Flynn’s role and jostled with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
The president (who damned Clinton for her security breaches) talked and tweeted on an unsecured cell phone and held key security talks on North Korea in an unsecured dining room at his Mar-a-Lago club house with diners snapping photos.
The world looks on agog at Trump’s foreign policy reality show.
But on one issue Trump and Flynn remained in tandem: an unseemly eagerness to appease Vladimir Putin. And that brings us to the unfolding scandal that brought Michael Flynn down.
Supposedly, Flynn was fired because he lied to Vice President Pence about phone conversations with the Russian ambassador to Washington on Dec. 29 – right after Obama imposed sanctions on Moscow for hacking the U.S. elections. Flynn said he didn’t speak to the ambassador about the sanctions; this would have broken an obscure law since Flynn did not yet hold office. Pence repeated this denial on TV.
Flynn got caught because U.S. security agencies were taping the Russian ambassador and someone leaked the transcripts to the Washington Post (the mercurial Flynn had a personal war ongoing with the intel community and the leak was payback).
But I don’t believe Flynn’s downfall came because he lost “the trust” of his bosses. After all, he was just following Trump’s line, signaling to the Kremlin that once Trump took office the sanctions would probably be lifted.
And Trump was given the transcript of Flynn’s conversation on Jan. 26, so – if trust was the issue – why not dump him before now?
Nor do I buy the claim that Flynn was subject to Russian blackmail because the Kremlin knew he lied to Pence. Moscow loves Flynn; he has appeared on the Kremlin’s propaganda outlet, RT, for which he took money, and been photographed schmoozing with Putin. The Russians have no more interest in blackmailing Flynn than they do in smearing Putin’s chief White House admirer – Trump.
No, I believe Flynn was fired because the leaks made the story go public, and embarrassed Pence. If the leaks hadn’t happened, I’m certain Flynn would still hold his post.
Never mind that he worsened the utter confusion in the White House on foreign policy. Never mind his mistaken assumptions that big U.S. concessions to Putin will woo him away from his warm relations with Iran and China and create an ally against ISIS. After all, Trump thinks the same.
Flynn’s departure won’t stop Trump’s tweets, or his nasty calls to allies (or his attacks on stores that don’t carry Ivanka’s brand). Nor will it instill cohesion into White House foreign policy. Even a more sober NSC adviser couldn’t do that, unless two miracles occur.
First, Bannon, another prophet of chaos in the White House, would have to resign too. And the president would have to grasp the gravity of his office and stop behaving like a reality-TV star. But that would mean he could no longer be Trump.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.