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Michael Flynn, the retired general on Donald Trump's VP shortlist, explained

Flynn prepares to testify at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in 2013.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Donald Trump is seriously considering Michael Flynn, a retired general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his pick for vice president, according to a report by the Washington Post’s Robert Costa.

The news is something of a surprise. Pundits have expected Trump to pick someone with traditional political experience, like a governor or senator, to buttress his complete lack thereof.

But the pick wouldn’t come completely out of nowhere. Flynn has been advising Trump on foreign policy issues since at least February, and had previously hinted that he’d be open to taking the No. 2 job. And an early July Politico piece described him as "Trump’s favorite general."

In some ways a retired general would seem to work perfectly as a Trump running mate. Flynn would bolster the Trump ticket’s foreign policy credentials but would also preserve the notion of an outsider campaign en route to clean up the mess in Washington. Flynn would also in some sense be a bipartisan pick, since, as of last year, he was a registered Democrat.

And in still more ways, Flynn appears to be the Trumpiest pick imaginable. Like Trump, Flynn is a harsh critic of President Obama and the American political establishment — his 2014 retirement came after numerous reports of him butting heads with his colleagues.

Like Trump, Flynn sees jihadism as America’s greatest threat, with his rhetoric often veering way past alarmism into irresponsibility. He said in one 2015 Fox News appearance, "I have been at war with Islam or a component of Islam for the last decade."

And like Trump, Flynn has an odd affection for Russia and its authoritarian government. He has spent much of his time since retirement cozying up the Putin regime, and he’s a frequent guest on its English-language propaganda channel, RT (formerly known as Russia Today).

But overall, while Trump may believe that selecting Flynn would give the ticket some badly needed gravitas on national security, what it would actually do is bring Trump’s own iconoclasm on foreign policy to the fore — for better or for worse.

Flynn’s career is defined by the threat of terrorism

Flynn (right) in Afghanistan in 2009, with his brother Charlie (also an officer).
(Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images)

Michael Flynn’s career has taken an interesting arc: from decorated army officer to dissenting Obama administration official to hyper-alarmist pundit to, now, potential VP nominee for Donald J. Trump.

But before his entry into politics, Flynn was career Army. He served in ROTC in college and joined up directly after graduation in 1981. He spent his career in military intelligence, and, most notably, he served as director of intelligence for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), the secretive terrorist-hunting special operations group, from 2004 to 2007.

At JSOC, Flynn was tasked with dismantling insurgent networks in Iraq and Afghanistan — an experience that seems to have informed his later view of jihadists as the greatest and most significant threat America faces.

In 2012, Flynn got the biggest promotion available to a military intelligence guy: director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Pentagon’s in-house intelligence agency. President Obama personally appointed Flynn to the job, and tasked him with reforming the agency. Flynn’s approach to dissenting employees, said at the time, was simple: "Move them or fire them."

As you might expect, this confrontational approach created a degree of friction. Flynn was often accused of being disruptive, and not in the good Silicon Valley sense of the term. According to the Washington Post, he frequently butted heads with the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Michael Vickers. Vickers wanted the DIA to focus on doing analysis and traditional gathering; Flynn wanted its operatives out in hot spots supporting soldiers on the ground.

According to Flynn, he also repeatedly warned the Obama administration that it was underestimating the threat from jihadist groups. Asked in a 2014 interview if he felt like a "lone voice in the administration" talking about growing terrorist threats, Flynn said yes: "I think we [the DIA] collectively felt that way."

Flynn quit the DIA in April 2014, a year before his term as DIA director ended. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, had reportedly put significant pressure on him to withdraw amid all of the infighting.

After retirement, Flynn was not shy about voicing his critiques of the Obama administration — or, really, any opinions at all. In his frequent press interviews since retirement, Flynn has said a number of inflammatory things about Islam, ISIS, and terrorism. A partial list:

  • Calling Islam "a political ideology based on a religion" and flip-flopping on whether "Islamism" or "Islam" is the problem Al-Jazeera)
  • Warning that jihadists are "infiltrating inside of our country ... coming through our borders" (Hugh Hewitt Show)
  • Suggesting a years-long occupation of Iraq and Syria to root out ISIS: "The sad fact is that we have to put troops on the ground. ... It's certainly not a question of months — it will take years." (Der Spiegel)
  • Implying that the US should level the entire city of Raqqa because ISIS controls it: "If we know that their headquarters exist in a place called Raqqa, Syria, we should eliminate, we should destroy Raqqa, Syria." (Hugh Hewitt Show)

And on July 12, Flynn will publish a book on the threat from radical Islam, called The Field of Fight. The book, according to Flynn, will highlight the "world war" nature of the flight with radical Islam. It’s co-authored with Michael Ledeen, a conservative writer who said in 2002 that "every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business."

Flynn, then, has traveled far from his roots as a dutiful Army officer — to the point that some of his own former colleagues are concerned about his evolution.

"Somehow Mike Flynn has blown a gasket," a senior American official told Politico. "He is so angry with this administration that he has forgotten his New England roots."

Flynn is strangely close with Russia

There’s one other important thing to know about Flynn: He is weirdly, strangely friendly with Vladimir Putin’s regime.

On December 10 of last year, Flynn attended a dinner celebrating the tenth anniversary of RT, the cable network formerly called Russia Today. He sat at the head table, with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and had delivered a talk on his view of foreign affairs today beforehand.

Given Flynn’s track record since 2014, this isn’t very surprising. "Flynn now makes semi-regular appearances on RT as an analyst, in which he often argues that the U.S. and Russia should be working more closely together on issues like fighting [ISIS] and ending Syria’s civil war," Michael Crowley writes in Politico. (Neither RT nor Flynn would comment to Crowley on whether he was a paid contributor to the network.)

Here, for example, is a nearly 15-minute RT segment starring Flynn, in which he argues that the US and Russia can and should cooperate in fighting ISIS in Syria:

"We gotta look at both sides here," Flynn says. "We have to have a sense of urgency. And I do think ... little things like sharing intelligence, working together, getting each other inside of our operations centers [would help]."

Flynn’s argument takes Russia’s claim that it is fighting "terrorists" in Syria at face value, when in reality Russia’s intervention is aimed at propping up dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Russian bombs have actually targeted US-aligned Syrian rebels, and have directed a relatively small percentage of munitions toward ISIS.

But it’s possible Flynn genuinely doesn’t care that Russia’s real aim is propping up Assad, because he thinks that anyone who’s against ISIS — as Assad is, at least nominally — is worth supporting.

For example, Flynn once told investigative reporter Seymour Hersh that "his agency had sent a constant stream of classified warnings to the civilian leadership about the dire consequences of toppling Assad" from 2012 to 2014, in Hersh’s words. Assad, Flynn told Hersh, was a better alternative than the jihadists that would likely replace him.

This centrality of jihadism — the idea that America’s top priority is fighting ISIS, consequences for human rights or other objectives be damned — is consistent with the hyperbolic tone Flynn uses when discussing terrorism. It’s also consistent with the language used by one Donald Trump.

Trump has said a number of nice things about Putin personally, and has expressed comfort with Russia’s intervention in Syria. As he put it in an interview with radio host Michael Savage:

What’s wrong with having a good relationship with Russia? What’s wrong with Russia bombing the hell out of ISIS and these other crazies so we don’t have to spend a million dollars a bomb? Let them buy some of the bombs, ’cause that’s what’s happening.

Like Flynn, Trump sees Islamism as a fundamental threat to the United States, and is willing to propose pretty radical revisions to US foreign policy if he thinks they would hurt terrorists.

And that, I think, would be the ultimate significance of a Flynn pick. Trump would be telling the world what his priorities are — and that they aren’t promoting democracy or opposing an increasingly aggressive Russia.

Instead, Trump would be signaling that he believes he needs to 1) project strength/toughness, and 2) take a strong stance against jihadist groups. These objectives would be so important, in his eyes, that he’s willing to embrace someone with questionable ties to a hostile power in order to further them.

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