It isn’t easy to name President Trump’s scariest appointment. Deciding whether it’s worse to have Steve Bannon on the National Security Council — or Jeff Sessions running the Justice Department — is like deciding whether it’s worse to have El Chapo as your NA sponsor or Joseph Kony as your babysitter.
But before he was ousted for lying to the vice-president about his (potentially) illegal communications with a Russian ambassador, Michael Flynn had a strong case for being the worst of the worst. In a White House full of anti-Muslim conspiracy theorists, Flynn was quite likely the most paranoid; and almost certainly, the most powerful.
As national security adviser, Flynn worked in closer proximity to the Oval Office than other top foreign policy aides — a key distinction in a White House led by a man (infamously) predisposed to agree with the last person who spoke with him.
We can’t know precisely what bad ideas Flynn whispered into the president’s ear. But here’s a sampling of the ones he shouted into the public discourse:
1. Fear of Muslims is rational.
2. Democrats have imposed Sharia law in parts of Florida.
3. Barack Obama is a jihadi who laundered money for Muslim terrorists (to be fair, Flynn merely retweeted this sentiment).
4. The Mexican border is lined with Arabic-language signs that guide radical Islamists into the United States.
5. Islamic scholars who claim that violent jihadism is not an authentic expression of their religion are merely trying “to confuse in order to control.”
6. North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Islamic State have all formed “an enemy alliance” ready to wage “global war” on the United States.
Flynn does not like having his intelligence assessments (and/or paranoid delusions) subjected to internal debate. Days after the 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Flynn concluded that Iran was responsible — and informed his subordinates at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) that their job was now to prove this hunch correct.
One of Flynn’s underlings at the DIA claimed that this “I conclude, you substantiate” approach to intelligence gathering defined Flynn’s tenure at the agency.
“Mr. Flynn said that the first thing everyone needed to know was that he was always right,” the anonymous official told the New York Times. “His staff would know they were right, he said, when their views melded to his.”
To insulate his ideas from critical feedback, Flynn staffed his White House office with less-well-established Islamophobes.
And the new national security adviser wasted little time before working to translate his bigoted intuitions into policy: According to Reuters, a Flynn-led faction within the White House had been pushing to add the Muslim Brotherhood to America’s list of foreign terrorist organizations.
This would be a bizarre and radical departure for American foreign policy. It’s true that some groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood commit political violence against civilians, like the Palestinian group Hamas. But the original Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt — and its offshoots in Turkey and Tunisia — had foresworn violence and sought to achieve Islamist rule through democratic means. Branding the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist group would strain relations with America’s Islamist allies, including the current Turkish government; reframe the war on terrorism as a war against political Islam in all of its forms; and open any Muslim-American citizen who has donated to a so-called Muslim Brotherhood affiliate to the threat of prosecution.
That last point is worth dwelling on — especially because CIA director Mike Pompeo and Attorney General Jeff Sessions both supported a bill that designated a Muslim civil-rights organization, the Council on Islamic-American Relations, as such an affiliate.
For these reasons and others, analysts at the State Department and CIA have opposed the move. Now, the “counter-jihadist” wing of the Trump White House has lost its leading advocate.
What’s more, early reports suggest that Flynn’s departure will allow the (comparatively) sane James Mattis to amplify his influence within the administration: A senior White House official has told the Daily Beast that a longtime Mattis colleague, retired Navy SEAL Vice Admiral Robert Harward, is the “leading candidate” to fill Flynn’s shoes. In the meantime, the disorder Flynn’s absence will produce at the National Security Council may create a vacuum that the (reassuringly Bannon-less) Pentagon can fill.
Beyond removing one of the most deranged cooks from Trump’s kitchen, Flynn’s departure is also an encouraging sign that the administration can put political expedience over loyalty or ideology. Following reports that Flynn had misled Vice-President Pence, Steve Bannon reportedly led the push for the former’s ouster. That Bannon backed the firing of a fellow Islamophobic crank suggests that, for all his accelerationist bluster, the former Breitbart mastermind remains a political strategist — and, thus, a man who is willing to tell the president when he needs to bow to external pressure. Unless Bannon just hated Flynn, and wanted to increase his personal power by removing other longtime Trump loyalists from the president’s orbit.
So, okay, it’s hard to sustain optimism about the Trump White House for any length of time. Even without Flynn, the president’s foreign-policy team is pretty darn dystopian. As Vox’s Zach Beauchamp notes, a broad swath of Trump’s inner circle — including Sessions, Pompeo, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway — is affiliated with a movement that views the American Muslim community as a fifth column.
And the fact that Mattis’s growing influence is worth celebrating is, itself, kind of terrifying: The retired general was kicked out of the Obama administration for being too hawkish on Iran — and, reportedly, pushed for the Navy to intercept an Iranian ship last week, so as to search for weapons that Tehran might be sending to Houthi rebels in Yemen.
Which is to say: Mattis wanted to commit an act of war against Iran to protect Saudi Arabia’s sphere of influence.
Nonetheless, Mattis does not believe that Judeo-Christian civilization is facing an epochal struggle against an Islamo-Fascist alliance composed of Iran, Al Qaeda, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba, and maybe, just maybe, Barack Obama.
Until last night, that was more than we could say about President Trump’s national security adviser. If Flynn is, in fact, replaced with a Mattis lackey, his resignation will go down as the best news America has received since Trump’s inauguration.