How Flynn — and the Russia scandal — landed in the West Wing
Michael Flynn wasn’t even on the shortlist of potential national security advisers.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the early transition chief for a newly elected Donald Trump, and his team had deep reservations about Flynn, fearing the retired three-star Army general who had been ousted from the Obama administration suffered from poor judgment and espoused far-out ideas on foreign policy.
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Instead, their list for the NSA slot included marquee military leaders such as now-Secretary of Defense James Mattis; General Peter Pace, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Bush; and Admiral William McRaven, who oversaw the Osama bin Laden raid, according to two people familiar with the transition.
But when Christie was fired from his transition perch on Nov. 11 — replaced by soon-to-be Vice President Mike Pence — Flynn and former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon celebrated by tossing binders full of potential personnel picks, carefully culled by Christie’s team, into trash bins with a sense of ceremonial glee.
They did this before an audience of other transition officials, according to the two people close to the transition and a campaign official — though another former transition official disputed the idea that the binders and picks were not considered by the Pence-led transition team.
Ultimately it was Trump himself who made the decision to ditch Christie’s recommendation against hiring Flynn for national security adviser, according to two former transition officials, rewarding one of his most loyal campaign surrogates.
“Flynn’s appointment was the president-elect’s decision, and he did it on his own timing after a lot of time spent together during the campaign,” explained one former White House official.
That fateful decision brought the simmering Russia scandal into the West Wing and set in motion a chain of events that ultimately led to the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating whether the president’s team had any involvement in Russian election meddling.
Flynn, who was fired in February after misleading Pence about his contacts with Russian officials before Trump’s inauguration, is under scrutiny from Mueller’s team. A flood of news reports have detailed the range of allegations against Flynn, from failing to disclose his Turkish lobbying work to reportedly engaging in a plot to kidnap a Muslim cleric and bring him back to Turkey, as well as his various Russia contacts during the transition.
Trump is also facing legal heat for reportedly asking former FBI Director James Comey to back off his investigation into Flynn — a request that came not long before Trump fired Comey.
Flynn’s lawyers on Friday afternoon released a statement about the series of news reports, dismissing the allegations lodged against the retired general as “false.”
Mark Corallo, a former spokesman for Trump’s legal team, said Flynn and his baggage played a major role in the unfolding of the Russia probe — even if most of the inquiries into Flynn deal with his lobbying operation and work for foreign governments instead of collusion with Russia itself.
“It did precipitate at least the perception that there is more to this than there really may be. It certainly was the catalyst that sparked a chain of events that have undoubtedly lengthened the special counsel’s investigation,” Corallo said.
For Christie, it’s a vindication of sorts, even if it’s a hollow one.
Privately, Christie complained to associates that Flynn behaved unprofessionally in classified briefings by interrupting the expert briefers, telling them they were wrong, and questioning them, according to two people familiar with the transition.
Christie told associates as early as August 2016 that Flynn would be a disaster in the administration and someone who he did not even want around the transition, these two people added.
Transition officials also were not confident that Flynn would be confirmed by the Senate — if chosen for a job that required such approval — after being forced out of his perch as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 over questions surrounding his temperament and management of the agency.
To placate Flynn, Christie asked former House Intelligence Committee chair and transition team member, Mike Rogers, to call Flynn and hear his take on possible candidates for top national security jobs.
Flynn’s recommendations were largely viewed within the Christie transition as a group of fringe characters, the sources added.
“We were concerned about him being in a leadership position. We were active in the effort to stymie his advances,” said the former transition official. “But Trump liked him. It seemed to me that they were going to take care of him.”
The Christie team had Flynn slated as one potential candidate for the Director of National Intelligence — a job the team considered safer than the NSA post because it had far less access to the president.