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Trump’s loyalty to Michael Flynn is destroying his presidency

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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.

President Donald Trump loves Michael Flynn.

His ardor hasn’t faded despite the fact that the biggest scandals engulfing the Trump administration right now trace back to the disgraced former national security adviser, or that their very closeness has at times growing talk of impeachment. If anything, all of that seems to be making Trump love Flynn even more. This is all the more interesting since Thursday, when the Wall Street Journal reported that a Republican operative who claimed to be working on behalf of Flynn was asking around for stolen Clinton emails during the campaign — which smells a little like a plot to collude with Russian hackers.

Trump has loved Flynn for a long time. In November, he loved Flynn enough to appoint him to be his national security adviser despite knowing that Russia had paid Flynn $45,000 to attend a dinner with Vladimir Putin. Trump loved him enough to keep him on despite Flynn informing the Trump transition in early January that he was under FBI investigation for secretly lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government.

Trump loves Flynn enough to stick with him even after acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the administration, on January 26, that Flynn had lied to the vice president about his interactions with the Russian ambassador and could potentially be blackmailed by the Kremlin. Trump loves Flynn so much that even after he was finally forced to fire him for said lies on February 14, he defended the man’s integrity in a press conference.

“Michael Flynn — General Flynn — is a wonderful man,” the president said in a press conference on February 15. “I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media."

Trump loves Flynn so much that the same day of that press conference, he ordered everyone out of the room after a top-level meeting on counterterrorism — except FBI Director James Comey. Trump then asked Comey, pretty bluntly, to drop the Flynn investigation.

“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump told Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”

Despite the trouble all of this has caused him — despite the fact that his intervention with Comey prompted talk of impeachment, even from a handful of House Republicans — Trump still loves Flynn. It’s apparently one of the reasons his relationship with current National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster has been a bit sour.

“Trump, who still openly laments having to dismiss Mr. Flynn, has complained that General McMaster talks too much in meetings,” the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman and Glenn Thrush reported earlier this year.

There’s just something about Flynn — and that something could potentially bring the Trump presidency crashing down.

Flynn is the source of Trump’s biggest problems

(Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Think about the huge problems overwhelming the Trump administration right now. Roughly, there are two categories: the threat of impeachment over the Comey firing and the broader Russia investigation into whether Trump aides colluded with Russia during the campaign.

The first, of course, is directly a result of his intervention with Comey on Flynn’s behalf. Jimmy Gurulé, a law professor at Notre Dame who was as assistant attorney general under George H.W. Bush, told my colleague Dylan Matthews that Trump potentially committed a crime punishable by two decades of jail time. When the Comey news first broke, some Republicans even started musing about impeaching Trump. Though that’s died down now, the fact that it even came up suggests how much of a liability Flynn is.

The second issue — probes by the FBI and both houses of Congress into shady, undisclosed, and potentially illegal coordination by the Trump campaign with Russian intelligence — centers on Flynn as well.

Flynn is, by all accounts, one of the key sources of suspicion about the Trump administration and Russia. Flynn’s ties to Russia are longstanding and, according to a new Reuters report, persisted throughout the campaign. The FBI has records of 18 calls between the Trump camp and Russian state interests; Flynn called the Russian ambassador six times during the transition alone. The Journal story is the strongest evidence yet that Flynn may have actually attempted to collude with Russia against Clinton.

The FBI investigation into Flynn is gathering steam. CNN reported on May 9 that “federal prosecutors have issued grand jury subpoenas to associates of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn seeking business records, as part of the ongoing probe of Russian meddling in last year's election.” It’s clear that Flynn’s personal conduct is a key reason this investigation, so painful for the Trump administration, has become such a big deal.

Now, it’s still not clear if Flynn actually was involved in any plot. We may not know for a long time, given the average length of an FBI criminal investigation.

Yet as long as that investigation is ongoing, Trump will have to deal with a constant black cloud over his administration — and the risk that at any moment, an indictment might come out for a top ally. If Flynn hadn’t acted in the way he did, and if Trump hadn’t elevated him during the campaign and transition, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem.

And to add to those two things, Flynn keeps creating new problems for the Trump administration too.

In May, meanwhile, McClatchy reported that Flynn vetoed an Obama administration plan to attack ISIS’s Syrian stronghold in the city of Raqqa during to the transition. This directly served the interests of the Turkish government: The operation would have required close US cooperation with Kurdish fighters whom Turkey sees as a terrorist group.

Just two months prior, Flynn had been operating as an unregistered foreign agent on Turkey’s behalf. In August 2016, his consulting firm was hired by something called Inovo BV — a Dutch company that turned out to be a shell corporation for a wealthy member of the Turkish government. Flynn appears to have been paid at least $530,000 by Ankara for the contract, which ended in November. What’s not clear is if Flynn continued to allow the huge payment from Turkey, or the promise of future payments once leaving office, affect his judgment in the Raqqa situation.

The allegation adds to Flynn’s already serious legal problems. But it also raises new questions about foreign influence in the Trump administration — like how much did Flynn’s Turkish ties affect his judgment and how much leeway did Trump give Flynn over decisions involving Turkey. These are painful, potentially scandalous questions for Trump — ones he can ill afford to handle right now.

Throwing Flynn under the bus would be the easiest solution to many of these headaches: condemning him and saying he was a rogue operator. But Trump won’t do it.

Why Trump loves Flynn anyway

Michael Flynn with Jared Kushner
Flynn with another Trump loyalist, Jared Kushner.
(Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump isn’t famous for his kindness, to put it mildly. But there’s a consistent strain, going back to his 1987 book The Art of the Deal, of a kind of affection for people who are loyal subordinates. Trump sees himself as a sort of king who’s owed loyalty by his subjects — and when the subjects provide that, the king owes them his favor in return.

“I’m loyal to people who have done good work for me,” as he puts it.

He also sees people he hires as sort of a reflection on his own greatness, and so is resistant to criticizing them in any way — let alone firing them. He even sometimes brings fired staffers, like ex-campaign manager and current lobbyist Corey Lewandowski, over for White House visits.

“Trump doesn’t like firing people, and never has, and has said so many times, mainly because in his mind dismissing somebody he has hired is an admission he made a mistake,” Michael Kruse writes at Politico. “This is why he so conspicuously dragged his feet before the firings of people like Corey Lewandowski and Flynn.”

This tic of Trump’s feels a bit Mafia-like: a sort of “keep it in the family” mentality, which in Trump’s case is often literal. He elevates his own children over more qualified people, in part, because he can be pretty sure that he can trust them to be loyal.

Flynn, for his part, appears to have earned this level of trust from the president. During the campaign, a time when virtually everyone in the national security community was shunning Trump, Flynn publicly and vocally allied himself with him. He did TV hit after TV hit defending Trump’s cozying up to Russia and hyper-aggressive stance on ISIS. He even ginned up “lock her up” chants during his speech at the Republican National Convention, putting whatever reputation for integrity he had on the line.

He even, Reuters reports, attempted to set up a secret line of Trump-Putin communication in phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The issue, once again, was loyalty: Trump and Flynn believed Obama administration holdovers and permanent bureaucrats in the State Department, the Pentagon, and the intelligence community would be disloyal to the president’s new Russia policy.

“Conversations between Flynn and Kislyak accelerated after the Nov. 8 vote as the two discussed establishing a back channel for communication between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could bypass the U.S. national security bureaucracy, which both sides considered hostile to improved relations,” Reuters’s Ned Parker, Jonathan Landay, and Warren Strobel write.

Flynn gained Trump’s trust, demonstrating his loyalty to the president time after time. It thus makes sense, given the president’s personal feelings, that he would be willing to go to the mat for Flynn time and time again. Trump even stuck by him when Flynn offered to testify to Congress and the FBI about Trump-Russia in March:

In mid-April, as allegations of Flynn’s wrongdoing mounted, the president still told Flynn that he had his back.

“I just got a message from the president to stay strong,” Flynn said after an April 25 dinner, according to Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff.

These feelings still haven’t gone away. When the Atlantic’s Rosie Gray asked Trump allies how the president felt about Flynn, they unanimously noted the president’s deep personal affection for the man.

“They got so close during the campaign,” a senior White House official and Flynn ally told Gray. “The real person who probably took [Flynn’s departure] hardest was the president because General Flynn was the person closest to him on national-security matters.”

There is no rational, self-interested reason that Trump would stick with Flynn like this. It doesn’t look like Flynn had any damning information on Trump that an FBI investigation would uncover. As far as we can tell, no one has accepted Flynn’s offer to testify in exchange for immunity — which strongly indicates that he’s got nothing.

The only real explanation here is that Trump felt he was protecting a trusted ally. He felt like he owed Flynn his loyalty, and so asked Comey to lay off him and continued to support Flynn emotionally behind the scenes. It’s likely that Trump didn’t even understand what he was doing was dangerous — or, in the case of Comey, potentially illegal and impeachable. He just thought it was the protection he owed to a friend and royal subject.

This impulse — a kind of Trumpian noblesse oblige — is, viewed in a certain light, kind of admirable. Yet it may end up bringing Trump down.