How did Michael Flynn fall? Did he jump or was he pushed? All of Washington is desperate to know, even though most Americans, worried that their neighbors, gardeners and house-cleaners are being snatched away in the night, shrug their shoulders, as if to ask: “Who is Flynn? What has he done? Why should we care?”
Good questions, all. We find ourselves in the midst of a “newsgasm,” a kind of press orgy where the media spends 23 hours and 45 minutes a day obsessing on Flynn, while giving 2 minutes, maybe, to mass deportation raids or the fact that a chunk of ice the size of Manhattan just broke away from Antarctica. Yet even with all of that wall-to-wall coverage the meaning of the scandal remains elusive.
Let’s summarize the story to date, with a cautionary note that almost all of the incriminating information comes from anonymous leaks by US intelligence sources hostile to both Trump and Flynn that were leaked to reporters who are slavishly tracking Trump’s trail of scandal, the surest path to career advancement.
On November 18, Trump announced that he was tapping Flynn, a retired Army General and disgraced former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his National Security Advisor. This position does not require congressional approval and Flynn, who is viewed with disdain on Capital Hill, likely wouldn’t have been confirmed if it had.
On December 28, the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, texted Flynn. The content of that text is unknown.
On December 29, after a wave of news reports alleging Russian involvement in the hacking of the email archive of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta, Barack Obama imposed new sanctions on Russia, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. After Obama’s announcement, Flynn and Kislyak engaged in a series of phone conversations, which were intercepted by the NSA. When reports of these calls went public, Flynn denied that the two men had discussed Obama’s new sanctions.
The following day Vladimir Putin stated with a sly grin that Russia was not going to retaliate against Obama’s sanctions, thus breaking a long-standing tradition of tit-for-tat reprisals dating back to the Cold War. Putin’s curious placidity sparked an investigation by US intelligence, which soon scooped up the recordings of the conversations between Flynn and Kislyak.
Two weeks later, on January 12th, one of the first salvos against Flynn was launched by the Washington Post’s columnist David Ignatius, a long-time mouthpiece for the high lords of Langley. Ignatius reported that Flynn had talked to the Russian ambassador several times on the day the sanctions had been announced. Ignatius implied that Flynn had suggested that Trump would reverse the sanctions once in office, a promise that must have been quickly relayed to Putin.
The next morning White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, responded emphatically to Ignatius’s story, saying that Flynn and Kislyak only discussed the logistics of setting up a post-inauguration phone call between Trump and Putin.
On January 19th, acting Attorney General Sally Yates convened a meeting in her office with FBI directory James Comey and several other top intelligence officers to discuss what action, if any, to take about Flynn’s calls. Yates argued that the White House should be warned about Flynn’s conduct, but Comey objected saying that it would impede the FBI’s ongoing investigation.
The following morning Trump was inaugurated as president of the United States and officially appointed Flynn as his National Security Advisor.
On January 24, the FBI interviewed Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak. According to an account in the Washington Post, Flynn denied any discussion of sanctions with the ambassador. If true, Flynn may have exposed himself to charges of lying to the FBI, an offense which the FBI prosecutes at its discretion (see Martha Stewart).
Two days later Sally Yates informed White House counsel Don McGahn about Flynn’s conversations. Yates warned McGlahn that Pence, Spicer and Kellyanne Conway had made misleading public comments regarding Flynn’s conversations with the Russian ambassador. She told McGahn that there were transcripts of the calls which showed that Flynn had indeed talked about sanctions. Yates said that she was concerned that Flynn had opened himself up to blackmail by the Russians.
According to Sean Spicer, McGahn swiftly briefed Trump and several other top officials at the White House (excluding Mike Pence) on his meeting with Yates. Trump reportedly instructed McGahn to determine whether Flynn’s remarks violated any laws, particularly the Logan Act, a federal statute from 1799 that prohibits citizens from engaging in unauthorized negotiations with foreign regimes. McGahn studied the issue for a couple of days and decided that Flynn had not violated the law.
On February 7, Flynn gave an interview with the Washington Post where he emphatically denied he talked about sanctions with Kislyak. The next morning, after the Post story ran, Flynn’s office called the paper with a clarification, saying that Flynn “couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
An irritated Mike Pence read the Post story and learned for the first time that he may have misled the country when he denied on Meet the Press that Flynn didn’t mention sanctions in his conversations with Kislyak. Later that day, Pence was told of the Justice Department’s briefing on Flynn that had occurred in the White House 15 days earlier.
On February 9, an anonymous White House staffer, presumed to be someone close to Pence, told the New York Times that Pence had been misled by Flynn. Another New York Times piece from the same day reported that transcripts of the Flynn/Kislyak calls existed.
Flynn then flew with the Trumps and Japanese Prime Minister Abe on Air Force One to Florida for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. When the plane landed, Trump was asked by a reporter about reports that Flynn had indeed talked about sanctions with the Russian Ambassador. Trump replied: “I don’t know anything about it.”
On Saturday night, Flynn broke the news to Trump and Abe about North Korea’s missile test, turning Mar-a-Lago’s outdoor restaurant into a kind of Reality TV war room. Trump was seen putting his arms around Flynn and engaging in jovial banter.
On Monday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway told NBC News that Flynn still enjoyed the “full confidence” of the president. Later that night Flynn submitted his resignation. Within 24 hours, the resignation had morphed into a firing by Trump due to an “evolving, and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation in a series of other questionable instances.” By Thursday, Trump himself said Flynn “did what he was supposed to do” in his conversation with Kislyak and blamed his ouster on the press.
Is that all there is to it? Did I miss something?
As with most of the actions coming out of the Trump White House, the administration’s rationale for the firing of Flynn strain logical analysis. If we are to believe the White House, Flynn was booted from his post as National Security officer because he wasn’t completely honest with Vice-President Mike Pence about the content of his conversations with Sergey Kislyak. But the Flynn calls were innocuous and Trump himself says he approves of them. No one has ever been prosecuted for violations of the Logan Act, not even the Reagan emissaries who convinced the Iranians to delay the release of the American hostages until after the inauguration.
As the media scourging of Flynn mounted, no one was heard rallying to the general’s defense, except for a few distant bleats on RT and SputnikNews. Flynn had burned his bridges with the political elites, which can be an honorable, if suicidal, career choice. The general was, no doubt, banking on the loyalty of Trump to save his ass. But he would learn a harsh lesson about the power dynamics of his Master’s circle. In Trumpland, loyalty is a one-way, and often dead-end, street. In fact, the relationship is not really about loyalty at all. It’s a matter of absolute obedience. And even then, one must understand that even the most obedient are expendable.
In an administration where prevarication has gone pathological, are we really to believe that Flynn was fired for not fully briefing Mike Pence on his calls with the Russian ambassador? Perhaps Flynn was canned for a simple reason, namely that he was in over his head, like most of Trump’s inner circle. Like many intelligence officers, Flynn is a professional paranoid, seeing conspiracies everywhere he looks. This can be a useful psychological trait in a field agent, but it can prove disastrous in an administer. Consider the case of spy-hunter James Jesus Angleton, one of the most wretched figures in the history of the CIA, whose mental collapse led him to see Soviet agents on every barstool and bus bench in DC.
Some believe that Flynn cracked up a few years ago, overwhelmed by the task of running the Defense Intelligence Agency where his behavior became increasingly erratic. He was abusive to staff and obsessed with bizarre plots and conspiracy theories. Where Angleton was haunted by Soviet agents, Flynn hallucinated about Arab bombers. Ultimately, he was relieved from his post.
The orchestrated agitating against Flynn, perhaps for good reasons, began the moment his former colleagues in the Pentagon picked up his radar signal orbiting the Trump campaign. The charge was lead by Colin Powell, who called Flynn “right wing nutty” and “a jerk.”
Flynn played right into the hands of his enemies. He forgot his own tradecraft by speaking so openly to Kislyak on lines that he should have known were wiretapped. And he apparently compounded that remarkable blunder by dissembling to the FBI, when he should have known the agents had transcripts of his exchanges with the ambassador. Flynn was undone by his own arrogance and stupidity.
The Democrats, still dressed in their funeral clothes, have seized on the Russia stories as a life raft in the maelstrom. When the Democrats speak of Flynn, they say largely the same thing: he was a great guy, a helluva soldier back when he was committing war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan with good old Stan McChrystal. He only went over the edge when he began to pursue detente with Russia. They have assiduously fanned the contagious fantasy that Russian meddling somehow tilted the election to Trump, besmirching the integrity of American democracy. Yet these new revelations, of contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials, hardly qualify as startling. In fact, most of the stories breathlessly pushed above the fold in the Washington Post and New York Times merely recycle in more assertive prose vaguely sketched stories of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia from the fall, stories which are infused with graver tones in the wake of Flynn’s humiliation.
Was Michael Flynn a Russian mole, groomed for decades by his handlers for this very moment like Bill Hayden in LeCarré’s masterpiece, who had penetrated the Trump campaign and later the highest levels of US intelligence? Or was the retired general a reformer with a plan to radically realign US foreign policy by forging a welcome new detente with Russia? Probably, neither. Mostly, Flynn was a head case, out of his depth in the position he suddenly found himself thrust in, whose conspiratorial view of the world synched so closely with Donald Trump’s own that as soon as Trump fired him he seemed to regret it.
It is entirely possible, of course, that the Russians do have something on Trump, though that leverage is likely to involve financial rather than sexual entanglements. Sex scandals, including his own, only seem to feed Trump’s ego. Even revelations of financial shenanigans might not exert much political sway over Trump. He is, after all, our first antinomian president, a man whose psyche is unclouded by any moral laws.
I think Trump’s decade-long Russian fixation has more mundane origins. Russia, of course, is not even faintly socialistic and hasn’t been for decades, which is probably why America-at-large is proving to be immune to the rusty McCarthyite tactics being recycled by Cold Warriors and aggrieved Democrats. Instead, Russia functions as a kind of highly leveraged kleptocracy, a form of government that Trump has long idealized. The president sees himself as an oligarch among oligarchs and his intention is to run the federal government as his own private fiefdom.
I suspect that behind the scenes Mad Dog Mattis served as Flynn’s secret executioner, in a kind of soft palace coup. As the lone agent of the neoconservative crew in the Trump cabinet, Mattis hoped to consolidate his own power behind the throne by having Flynn replaced with his own protege, Adm. Bob Harwood. If so, the move blew up in Mattis’s face when Harwood turned down the job, after Trump refused Harwood’s demand to fire KT McFarland, Flynn’s deputy at NSC. Like Flynn, McFarland is a professional Islamophobe and serial fabulator. When McFarland was running in the GOP primaries for a US senate seat, she was caught in two lies about her CV: 1. That she co-wrote Reagan’s Star Wars speech; 2. That she was the top-ranked woman in the Pentagon during Reagantime. Those are both pretty standard resumé embellishments for the DC political class. But here’s something truly vile. McFarland’s brother Michael contracted AIDS in the 1990s and died of an AIDS related illness in 1995. Shortly before he died, KT publicly outed him as gay and blamed his homosexuality on familial abuse. Her other brother Tom later said, “If there’s one word I could use to describe my sister, it would be ‘evil.'”
If he avoids prosecution for lying to the FBI, Flynn may yet be able to franchise himself as a political martyr to the blue-collar nativists who form the core of Trump’s support. The general may even prove useful to the president, out on the revival circuit in the hinterlands, inveighing against the Mullahs of Iran and the spinelessness of the foreign policy elite. Who knows, Trump may even keep Flynn’s number on speed dial on that secret, after hours Android he keeps on the nightstand, for midnight consultations on how to deal with Putin and John McCain.
As Flynn was packing his bags, Trump couldn’t resist blaming his fall on the press. “Michael Flynn, General Flynn,” Trump growled, “is a wonderful man, who has been treated very, very unfairly by the media.” Which may be Trumponics for “Don’t rat me out, bro.”
This struggle is all playing out in a wild new political ecosystem in Washington, where the polarities of power pit the foreign policy establishment, the mainstream press and the intelligence agencies against Trump’s visigoths. The Democrats are all but irrelevant, reduced to little more than background noise. Trump has been in power for a month and the rhetorical niceties of Obamatime already seem like a kind of pre-history. We’ve entered a time when the mad dogs are leading the mad men.
+ Back in September, Clinton and Trump both met with a foreign leader and pledged him whatever the hell he wanted. No howls about violating the Logan Act were heard….
+ So the CIA leaks a story about not sharing intelligence with the President for fear that he would leak the information. I think we are officially well beyond anything Orwell warned us about now…
+ Whatever the opposite of a Sanctuary State is, that’s what Virginia should put on its license plates:
“The Virginia Senate advanced a bill that would require jails and prisons in the state to detain inmates up to two days beyond their sentence to give federal immigration authorities time to pick them up. The measure is part of a flurry of Republican-backed legislation meant to crack down on illegal immigration.”
+ Clinton/Obama hack Tom Perez appears to be closing in on taking over as new chair of the DNC. Campaign theme? “Stasis you can believe in.”
+ Perhaps Trump should try some of that Extreme Vetting on White House staffers?
+ Hippie Pope stands up for Standing Rock, declares Native People have rights over their lands. Now if he’d only apply the same logic to his own Church and ditch the Doctrine of Discovery.
+ Ditto whatever Trump tweeted about federal judges…
+ Another under-reported act of domestic terrorism, courtesy of Big Oil…
+ Scott Pruitt was just confirmed by the Senate to lead the EPA. “Lead the EPA” being a kind of pun, I gather. In a very close vote, Heidi Heitckamp and Joe Manchin voted to confirm. Shouldn’t they be purged from the party? Perhaps the problem is determining which party they really belong to….
+ Strange Fruit in Harris County, Texas…
+ Do sheep dream of electric androids? Apparently, at least one of them does….
+ Rex Tillerson booked lodging in a sanitarium during the G20 Summit in Bonn. It won’t help Rex. Things are going to be even more insane when you return…
+ A woman in Houston was seized in a courthouse by ICE during a hearing on a domestic violence case. The person who informed on her was her abuser. Much more chilling than a few premature phone calls to the Russian Amb.
+ Trump’s current job approval by race, according to Gallup: blacks 11%; Hispanics 19%; whites 53%. (Not much change, after all the fuss. Trump’s actually up 3 with blacks, slumping with Hispanics though–wonder why.)
+ I confess that I didn’t watch all of Trump’s 1.5 hour press conference, but I assume with all of that time he fully addressed the news that the oceans are running out of oxygen. Didn’t he?
+ You won’t have the Hamburgler to kick around any more. Andy Puzder withdrew his nomination as Secretary of Labor, before being confronted with a variety of unsavory entries on his resumé, from abuse of workers to spousal abuse. Puzder griped to reporter Major Garrett that he quit because he was “very tired of the abuse.” What a snowflake…
+ Finally, a David Brooks column that Alexander Cockburn would have endorsed. Brooks writes that the resistance to Trump should emulate Gerald Ford, who Alex long considered our greatest president. Get out your pardon pen, Mike Pence!
+ A new poll alleges that a “generic Democrat” would defeat Trump in 2020, even though Elizabeth Warren would lose to the pompous faker by six points. Which begs the question: what’s a generic Democrat? The love child of Joe Manchin and Nancy Pelosi? And can they be manufactured at a low-price in Canada and secretly shipped across the border?
+ Comey-comey-comey-comey-chamleon, he comes and goes, he comes and goes…
+ In case, you’re thinking Trump is the most vile president in recent memory, a flashback to Bill Clinton standing above Nixon’s grave:
“Today, we can look back at this little house and still imagine the young boy sitting by the window of the attic he shared with his three brothers, looking out to a world he could then himself only imagine … When he became President, he took on challenges here at home on matters from cancer research to environmental protection, putting the power of the Federal Government where Republicans and Democrats had neglected to put it in the past – in foreign policy….Oh yes, he knew great controversy amid defeat as well as victory. He made mistakes and they, like his accomplishments, are part of his life and record. But the enduring lesson of Richard Nixon is that he never gave up being part of the action and passion of his times.’”
What I’m listening to this week…
What I’m reading this week…
Raul Hilberg: The Politics of Memory: the Journey of a Holocaust Historian
Pauline Butcher: Freak Out!: My Life with Frank Zappa
Michel Foucault: On the Government of the Living
Turning Sadism Into Justice
Joseph Heller: “It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”