Presidents have always had problems with generals. In 1862, Lincoln removed George B. McClellan from command of the Army of the Potomac and brought Ambrose Burnside to see what Burnside could do against Robert E. Lee. That didn’t work out. Ulysses Grant finished the job. In 1951, Truman relieved Douglas MacArthur of his command after MacArthur made public statements that contradicted his administration’s policies, and Truman wasn’t going to nuke anyone to cover up MacArthur’s mistakes in Korea. Marching up to the Yalu had been a bad idea, and had been unauthorized, and had brought in the Chinese. In June 2010, Obama fired Stanley McChrystal, the US Army Commander Afghanistan, for being a loose-lipped jerk, mocking anyone who was a mere civilian, particularly all those fools in Washington. McChrystal apologized and rode off into the sunset. These things happen.
These things happen in Hollywood movies too. In 1964 it was Seven Days in May – a bunch of generals plan a takeover of the government because their weak-willed president had negotiated a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union, those damned commies. John Frankenheimer directed the thing. Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and Fredric March chewed up the scenery. Rod Serling wrote the screenplay, based on the 1962 novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, written during the first year of the Kennedy administration. That was an interesting time. In November 1961, Kennedy accepted the resignation of the hysterically anti-Communist General Edwin Walker, who kept saying that Harry Truman, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and Eleanor Roosevelt, and most everyone else, was a damned communist sympathizer. Walker made sure all his troops knew that they were. Kennedy made sure Walker was gone. Walker was unhinged. Walker was dangerous.
There was a bestselling novel there. What if General Edwin Walker had formed a cabal to rid America of Kennedy? There was a Hollywood movie there too. Generals can be dangerous, although that was long ago. Donald Trump loves generals – those “real men” like George Patton. Patton slapped that shellshocked soldier in that Italian hospital for being a wimp, and was sidelined for most of the rest of the war by the weary Dwight Eisenhower, but no matter. Trump is not a student of history, and he has John Kelly. He has H. R. McMaster. What could go wrong?
He had Michael Flynn. That’s what could go wrong, and the last May, coincidentally, the New York Times published a backgrounder on Trump’s generals, and noted this about Flynn:
Less than a week into the Trump administration, Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general, hurried to the White House with an urgent concern. The president’s national security adviser, she said, had lied to the vice president about his Russian contacts and was vulnerable to blackmail by Moscow.
“We wanted to tell the White House as quickly as possible,” Ms. Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday. “To state the obvious: You don’t want your national security adviser compromised with the Russians.”
Trump didn’t feel that way:
President Trump did not immediately fire the adviser, Michael T. Flynn, over the apparent lie or the susceptibility to blackmail. Instead, Mr. Flynn remained in office for 18 more days. Only after the news of his false statements broke publicly did he lose his job on Feb. 13.
Trump hung onto Flynn, a bit of a mystery, and then things got even worse:
Since leaving office, Mr. Flynn has been a persistent headache for Mr. Trump. He retroactively registered as a foreign lobbyist and failed to disclose Russian contacts, resurrecting questions about the administration’s close ties to Russia. The FBI is investigating whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russian operatives to influence the 2016 presidential election.
Mr. Trump blamed Obama officials on Monday, noting on Twitter that it was his predecessor’s administration that gave Mr. Flynn a security clearance.
“General Flynn was given the highest security clearance by the Obama Administration – but the Fake News seldom likes talking about that,” Mr. Trump wrote.
That was beside the point, and the president doesn’t hand out security clearances like candy anyway, so that wasn’t Obama’s doing, and there was this:
Mr. Flynn, a former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has long been a controversial figure. He has incorrectly declared that Sharia, or Islamic law, is spreading in the United States and once wrote on Twitter, “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” His dubious assertions were so common that subordinates called them “Flynn facts.”
Mr. Obama fired Mr. Flynn from his defense intelligence job. And two days after the election, he warned Mr. Trump against making Mr. Flynn his national security adviser, two former Obama administration officials said on Monday. Mr. Obama said he had profound concerns about Mr. Flynn’s taking such a job.
Obama saw a General Edwin Walker in Flynn, an unhinged and dangerous general. Obama had fired Flynn. If Trump hired Flynn, Trump would have to fire Flynn too. Trump scoffed, and then accepted Flynn’s resignation before a month had gone by. Oops.
And this was the day that Trump paid the real price for hiring an unhinged and dangerous general:
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty Friday to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and, in an ominous sign for the White House, said he is cooperating in the ongoing probe of possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin to influence the 2016 election.
When Flynn was forced out of the White House in February, officials said he had misled the administration, including Vice President Pence, about his contacts with Kislyak. But court records and people familiar with the contacts indicated he was acting in consultation with senior Trump transition officials, including President Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, in his dealings with the diplomat.
Flynn’s plea revealed that he was in touch with senior Trump transition officials before and after his communications with the ambassador.
This is trouble, considering Flynn’s public statement:
It has been extraordinarily painful to endure these many months of false accusations of “treason” and other outrageous acts. Such false accusations are contrary to everything I have ever done and stood for. But I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.
My guilty plea and agreement to cooperate with the Special Counsel’s Office reflect a decision I made in the best interests of my family and of our country. I accept full responsibility for my actions.
The best interests of his family are staying out of jail and keeping his son out of jail. He’ll plead guilty to this minor charge, for that. He’ll explain to Mueller’s team just who was in on all of this with him, to stay out of jail and to keep his son out of jail. That may be good for the country too, in an incidental way – but he’s not going down alone. Trump picked the wrong general:
Flynn admitted in his plea that he lied to the FBI about several December conversations with Kislyak. In one, on Dec. 22, he contacted the Russian ambassador about the incoming administration’s opposition to a U.N. resolution condemning Israeli settlements as illegal and requested that Russia vote against or delay it, court records say. The ambassador later called back and indicated Russia would not vote against it, the records say.
In another conversation, on Dec. 29, Flynn called the ambassador to ask Russia not to escalate an ongoing feud over sanctions imposed by the Obama administration, court records say. The ambassador later called back and said Russia had chosen not to retaliate, the records say.
Flynn admitted as a part of his plea that when the FBI asked him on Jan. 24 – four days after Trump was inaugurated – about his dealings with the Russians, he did not truthfully describe the interactions. But perhaps more interestingly, he said others in the transition knew he was in contact with Kislyak.
And add this:
It is unclear what else Flynn might have told Mueller’s team about his work for the administration and interactions with Russians or whether that might have significant consequences for the investigation. Flynn is the highest-profile Trump ally – and the first aide who worked in the White House – to face charges in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. Trump developed a close rapport with Flynn on the campaign trail, where the general delivered fiery denunciations of Hillary Clinton, including leading a “Lock her up!” chant at the Republican National Convention.
Outside the courthouse Friday, a small group of protesters shouted “Lock him up!” at Flynn as he left the building.
Payback is a bitch, and that left only this:
In a statement on Flynn’s guilty plea, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said: “The false statements involved mirror the false statements to White House officials which resulted in his resignation in February of this year. Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn. The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears the way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
Nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Flynn? Everything indicates that, and there’s this background detail:
The plea caps a stunning fall for the general. A native of Rhode Island who grew up in a large family of modest means, Flynn joined the Army officer school and chose early in his career to specialize in intelligence. Among his mentors was Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who praised Flynn’s ability in Afghanistan to bond with his soldiers and get results. In 2012, Flynn was named director of the Defense Intelligence Agency but rankled some subordinates there who questioned his temperament and decision-making. President Barack Obama removed Flynn from the DIA post in October 2014.
Though Flynn gave Trump much-needed national security credentials, he had a mixed reputation among other Trump aides, who thought he gave the president questionable information and worried about some of his business dealings.
Flynn’s mentor, Stanley McChrystal, ended up with a mixed reputation too, so Trump should have known better:
Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak, who stepped down from his ambassador post in July, are a key issue in the probe, and the plea deal could open new doors for investigators trying to determine what, if anything, Trump knew about such contacts.
Flynn has also come under scrutiny for having a secret financial stake in major foreign policy decisions while advising Trump during the campaign, the transition and the brief period he served in the administration.
Yes, he was paid by Turkey the whole time. He had been paid handsomely to go chat up various Russians. He had a business deal with the Saudis. But all that doesn’t matter now, as Julian Borger notes here:
Almost everything about Michael Flynn’s guilty plea to perjury and his cooperation agreement with the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference suggests that it is part of a much bigger picture, legal experts said on Friday.
“It’s the first time the former head of a major US intelligence agency has faced criminal charges related to improper dealings with a hostile foreign power,” said Scott Horton, a lecturer at Columbia University and expert in international corruption.
But the court documents make clear that the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller is aiming even higher…
Flynn’s guilty plea raises the question of how much Donald Trump knew about his national security advisor’s contacts with Kislyak. If Trump was aware of those conversations, it throws a sharper light on his efforts to get the FBI director, James Comey, to drop the investigation of Flynn and subsequent firing of Comey and of Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, who had raised concerns about Flynn.
This is bad news, and Karen Tumulty notes this:
Donald Trump’s young presidency entered a new, surreal dimension Friday, with his 315th day in office delivering both his greatest achievement to date and his darkest omen of peril ahead.
At the very moment the Senate was poised to pass a $1.5 trillion tax cut bill – a big step toward Trump’s first major legislative victory – word came that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had pleaded guilty to a single count of lying to the FBI.
The development was read across Washington to mean that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III probably has a bigger target in his sights and that Flynn has agreed to provide the evidence that could help him make the case.
It was the best of times and the worst of times, and no good will come of this:
Within Trump’s orbit, there was concern Friday about how the president would react to Flynn’s plea agreement, with what one adviser worried there would be “a full freakout.”
Instead, Republicans hope Trump will concentrate on a badly needed victory on taxes and help them turn it into momentum as they head into next year’s midterm elections.
But they expect a full freakout, except they got this:
Things at the White House on Friday were tightly buttoned up. Officials abruptly canceled a photo session with Libyan Prime Minister Fayez Serraj that might have provided reporters an opportunity to ask Trump questions about the Flynn news.
Long-established rituals of the holiday season proceeded however, among them an annual reception for the news media that the president regularly pummels. Trump’s uncharacteristically perfunctory remarks were declared off the record.
There have been no freakouts yet:
“He wasn’t worried about it,” said one person who heard from Trump during a Thanksgiving weekend spent at his beloved Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida. This person spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose a private conversation.
Another associate, however, discerned that anxiety was still tickling somewhere in the back of Trump’s mind when the president made a speech at a Coast Guard station Thanksgiving morning.
The hint was a seeming non sequitur to a point he was making about military equipment sales overseas: “You never know about an ally. An ally can turn. You’re going to find that out.”
Trump seems stunned, and he’s not used to that, but that’s dangerous too:
Trump has reached a delicate moment that would seem to call for discipline and focus. “The really smart presidents just float above it,” said presidential historian Douglas Brinkley.
When things were going roughly for Franklin D. Roosevelt, he would disappear – for instance, taking a 24-day cruise to the Galapagos during the recession and rocky midterm election season in 1938. At low points, Ronald Reagan simply would turn off the television and quit reading the newspaper until things turned around.
It is hard, however, to imagine Trump doing that. If anything, pressure seems to make him even more obsessive about everything that is said about him in the media or by his critics. And the timing of Flynn’s plea on the very day that the tax bill appeared set to move out of the Senate may well feed his penchant for conspiracy theories. And Trump has long had difficulties letting go of grievances.
Moreover, the convergence of positive and negative developments comes at the end of a week in which his behavior has been outside the norm, even by his standards.
And it was quite a week:
He disseminated on social media three inflammatory, unverified anti-Muslim videos produced by an ultranationalist British fringe group, drawing a rebuke from Prime Minister Theresa May.
Trump replied to May on Twitter: “Don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!”
At a ceremony honoring Navajo heroes from World War II, he interrupted his tribute to take a jab at one of his favorite antagonists, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.): “We have a representative in Congress who has been here a long time… longer than you – they call her Pocahontas!”
His comment was a reference to a controversy that occurred during Warren’s 2012 Senate campaign over the fact that she claims Native American heritage but cannot document it.
And on Friday, Trump denied reports, confirmed by his own advisers, that he is readying plans to get rid of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
Trump tweeted: “The media has been speculating that I fired Rex Tillerson or that he would be leaving soon – FAKE NEWS! He’s not leaving and while we disagree on certain subjects, (I call the final shots) we work well together and America is highly respected again!”
Brinkley said of Trump: “He has no Zen mode. He’s simply a person marching on roads of bones in warrior mode.”
There will be trouble ahead, and Dahlia Lithwick adds this:
Like most people on the left, I have spent the past year putting great faith in the courts and legal institutions to act as a check on Donald Trump, maintaining this faith even as Trump fired career lawyers like James Comey and Sally Yates and replaced them with ideologues and thugs. And like most people on the left, I placed an enormous amount of confidence in Robert Mueller as the embodiment of the principle that Trump could not escape the oncoming steamroller of justice and legal liability. Even as we remained uncertain whether our political leaders were up to the task of sidelining the Trump train of destruction, we took solace in the fact that the last grown-ups in America were hard at work in the special counsel’s office. And no, they don’t spend their weekends on the golf course.
But they aren’t everything:
In recent weeks, and most especially in this past week, I’d begun to suspect that the forces of chaos and nihilism that stand against Mueller’s project might swallow whatever outcomes he produced. The shocking norm-and-truth defiance of the GOP tax bill, the refusal of the GOP leadership to criticize or even comprehend the enormous violence done by Trump’s anti-Muslim tweets, the president’s staggering support for the candidacy of Roy Moore, the silent Republican collusion to the seating of demonstrably unfit judges, and the virulence of the White House’s attacks on the press all contributed to a general sense that absolutely everything was broken and that Democrats had lost whatever momentum they had to halt this chaos.
In our ongoing national nightmare of creeping authoritarianism, we talk a good amount about normalization and the numbing effects of a barrage of shocking daily news. But I have also tried to be vigilant about all the ways in which magical thinking about law and lawyers – this is a nation of laws, not men, we’re told—can also numb us, and lead to a declining sense of agency or ownership.
Democrats don’t like giving up on their institutions easily, and the Mueller investigation has served as both the best and the worst manifestation of that alluring Democratic reasonableness. So long as he is working away, filing documents and convening grand juries, nobody needs to take to the streets. But as the year has progressed, it’s become clear that absolutely nothing will persuade Trump supporters and Republicans in Congress that it’s time to disavow the president – not lying, not spilling state secrets, not abject failure in crisis management, and not openly performed corruption. Given that reality, it often feels like it wouldn’t be enough for Mueller to hand us a smoking gun and an indictment. What if they threw a conviction and nobody came?
That is possible:
It seems as though truth and law are forever losing ground in the footrace against open looting and overt totalitarianism. The more abjectly deranged Trump’s behavior and the more Republicans in Congress cover for him, the less likely it is that anything Mueller can magic up in his underground hall of justice will matter. Trump’s legal antagonists like to think that the next legal “tick, tick, tick, boom” will be the one that ends all this chaos. But with every passing day, as Trump escapes consequences and attacks the courts and the press, the chances that a “tick, tick, tick, boom” will be played off as #fakenews also increase.
I’ve been thinking that America is operating along two parallel legal tracks. On one track is the chug-chug of law and order, as embodied in the Mueller investigation. On the other is the daily mayhem and denialism and circus-performing of the present White House. I tend to worry that with every passing day, the circus is training us to ignore, discredit, devalue, or disbelieve what’s happening on the other track. By the time the Mueller train gets to its final station, the norms that would ordinarily lead to impeachment proceedings might be tiny piles of yellow legal pad–shaped cinders…
In weeks like this one, when it seems the Mueller investigation is quite literally the only authority and sanity we can look to, it’s hard to tell whether the net losses outweigh the wins, or whether the massive national game of deconstruction and deflection and deception is even the littlest bit disrupted by news that the special counsel is closing in on a legal conclusion.
In short, all of this may not matter:
At this moment when all options remain open, we should accept the possibility that Mueller may come to represent the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America. We also must acknowledge the reality that the highest and most binding expression of law and order in America might not matter enough, to enough people, to bring the Trump train to a stop.
So, Mueller flips Flynn, Trump’s unhinged and dangerous general, who exposes the whole charade – all the work with Russia by the whole crew to make things just so – and then it just doesn’t matter. Actually, that’s a coup, and that would make a pretty good movie too. Call it Flynn’s Facts. Set it in seven days in May. These things happen.