Michael Flynn’s resignation as National Security Advisor is good news, mostly because it makes it slightly less likely that the Trump administration will blunder into a foolish war, especially with Iran. It won’t be the end of the scandal though, as it is hard to believe that the President was totally unaware of Flynn’s actions.
Flynn’s fall is surprising only for its speed. Since he gained prominence as a Joint Special Operations Command intelligence officer in Iraq for helping to develop the “find, fix, and finish” method of seizing or killing suspected insurgents and terrorists, Flynn has, to put it mildly, showed a deficit of the sound judgment needed in a National Security Advisor.
As head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn apparently pushed analysts to hype Iran’s malign influence and to find evidence that it had a hand in the 2011 Benghazi attack, feuded with senior staff, demonstrated hostility to dissent, favored conspiracy theories, and got fired for some combination of those things and generally poor management.
He wrote an overwrought book with Michael Ledeen which includes various dubious and unsubstantiated claims, especially about Iran, including that it is allied against the United States with jihadists, North Korea, China, Russia, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.
In his speech at last year’s Republican National Convention, Flynn essentially accused Hillary Clinton of treason for her email server debacle, despite his own dubious record in handling classified information. And, while receiving classified intelligence briefings along with Trump, Flynn was secretly employed as a lobbyist for Turkish interests, a fact that he hid while taking Turkey’s line in an op-ed endorsing the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. Around that time, Trump was attacking lobbyists and subsequently pretended to bar them from his administration.
Maybe surviving and even profiting from those misjudgments encouraged the reckless and possibly illegal actions that led to Flynn’s resignation. As everyone that reads the news knows, Flynn may have violated the Logan Act, which bars unauthorized citizens from meddling in U.S. diplomacy, when on December 29, in a series of calls, he told Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that the Trump administration would reverse the sanctions that the Obama had just imposed on Russia for its pro-Trump hacking and leaking.
You don’t have to be a former head of the DIA to know that U.S. intelligence agencies intercept the Russian ambassador’s cellphone calls. That’s why it’s baffling that Flynn lied to Vice President Pence (and the media) about the content of the calls, which created concern among Justice Department officials that he could be blackmailed by Russians. That lie, more than Trump’s concern about propriety, seems to be why Flynn was likely to be fired, and thus preemptively resigned.
We shouldn’t expect too much from Flynn’s replacement, given who is picking and the fact that most qualified candidates, having seen the Trump White House in action, will want no part of it. Still, at the risk of sounding like the president, it’s hard to see how it could get worse. The retired generals that Trump is predictably considering for the post are less belligerent and better-suited to deflect his worst instincts.
Flynn’s resignation probably won’t end the scandal. It’s doubtful that his pre-inaugural talk with the Russian ambassador was a one-off. According to intelligence reports cited by the Washington Post, Flynn was communicating with Kislyak during the campaign. Nor is it likely that Flynn acted without Trump’s approval. Note that the president-elect tweeted his approval of Russia’s non-response to the sanctions on December 30. It is possible that Flynn’s actions were part of the broader set of conversations between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, now the subject a counterintelligence investigation.
Maybe Flynn will have something to say about all that now that he’s out of a job. He ended his resignation letter like a good Trump soldier, calling on Americans to work to “Make America Great Again.” But otherwise he sounded petulant and barely contrite, admitting only to “inadvertently briefing” Pence and others with “incomplete information,” and blaming his error on the “fast pace of events.”
I’m tempted to say that no one would so blatantly work with a rival state to undercut U.S. diplomacy. Why not at least use intermediaries outside the campaign, like Nixon did in 1968 when he undermined U.S. peace talks in Vietnam to beat Hubert Humphrey? But, if we didn’t know it three weeks ago, it' become clear that under Trump, incompetence can’t be underestimated.