As Donald Trump’s national security adviser, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn will have to advise the president of the veracity of foreign and domestic threats, separating those that require immediate policy action from propaganda or misinformation.
But Flynn himself has used social media to promote a series of outrageous conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton, President Barack Obama and their inner circles in recent months — pushing dubious factoids at least 16 times since Aug. 9, according to a POLITICO review of his Twitter posts. Flynn, who has 106,000 Twitter followers, has used the platform to retweet accusations that Clinton is involved with child sex trafficking and has “secretly waged war” on the Catholic Church, as well as charges that Obama is a “jihadi” who “laundered” money for Muslim terrorists.
Now some say Flynn’s fondness for spreading fake news casts doubt on his fitness to serve as the White House’s national security adviser, suggesting that he either can’t spot a blatant falsehood or is just ideologically bent to believe the worst of his perceived enemies.
The flak began flying anew after Sunday’s shooting at a Washington pizza restaurant that had been targeted by false, internet-fed rumors accusing it of being the epicenter of a satanic child-trafficking conspiracy involving Clinton and her allies. Flynn had twice used Twitter to promote similar, only slightly less-outrageous hoaxes in the past month, including a claim that Clinton’s campaign manager takes part in occult rituals where bodily fluids are consumed.
Those were far from isolated tweets for Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
In the vast majority of instances in the past four months, he was passing along other people’s conspiratorial tweets instead of casting them in his own voice. In one example, he retweeted a post about a Fox News story claiming that the Army had identified Clinton as an “insider threat.” Another time, he reposted a tweet by someone named “Eagle Wings” about an alleged United Nations one-world-government plot called Agenda 21.
Trump himself has faced criticism for his use of social media to spread misinformation, including his evidence-free claim that “millions of people” had voted illegally in the Nov. 8 election. But this kind of rumor-mongering is especially beyond the pale for someone who will have the next president’s ear, said former State Department policy adviser Peter Singer, one of many people who publicly lambasted Flynn after Sunday’s shooting.
“We are not talking about policy toward China or Russia,” Singer, now a national security strategist at the think tank New America, said in an interview Monday. “We are talking about some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories out there. We are down the rabbit hole. How can you take him seriously when he is discussing people in D.C. drinking human blood? It is exasperating.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said late Monday that while nobody was injured in the shooting, the conspiracy theories spread on social media had “come close to having deadly results.”
“It is incumbent on Trump, his nominee for national security adviser, Gen. Flynn, and his entire team to disavow these falsehoods and conspiracy theories,” Schiff said in a statement. “They will soon have a country to run, and God help us if they conduct the nation’s affairs like their transition — without the willingness or ability to separate fact from fiction.”
Singer and others stressed that the position of national security adviser, which does not require Senate confirmation, “is one of, if not the, most important national security roles.”
“It is a role that has been occupied by a history of thoughtful and sober thinkers, whether you are right or left,” he said.
The adviser serves as the primary counselor to the president on defense and foreign matters, running a 400-person staff in the White House that acts as the filter for the Pentagon, the State Department and intelligence and other security agencies, as well as the implementer of the president’s policy. Well-known individuals who have held the post include Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell, Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Even one of Flynn’s former military colleagues expressed puzzlement Monday at the dark turn his pronouncements on social media have taken.
“That is not typically the behavior of someone who needs the necessary sobriety to advise the president on the most critical matters facing the nation,” said the former military official, who worked with Flynn every day for more than a year in Afghanistan.
“This is not the Mike Flynn I once knew,” added the former military official, who asked not to be identified because he currently holds a government position. “While he was given to reacting on a gut, rather than fact, this represents a departure from the intellectual rigor he demanded of those around him.”
Flynn did not respond to several requests to be interviewed for this story. The Trump transition office also did not respond to requests for comment.
But Graham Plaster, a retired Navy officer and one of Flynn’s acolytes in military intelligence, defended the general’s social media habits, contending that sharing false information doesn’t necessarily mean he believes it.
“Anything that gets retweeted or shared is done casually,” he said in an interview. “Anyone who assumed more than that is walking on ice. Twitter is a different context than reading a speech and in some cases things are taken out of context based on how limited the character count is. There is no opportunity to explain yourself.”
Still, calls grew on Monday for Trump to rethink his choice following the shooting at Comet Ping Pong, a family eatery and concert space that has been the center of the child sex ring hysteria. The restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, is a former romantic partner of pro-Clinton political activist David Brock, a longtime lightning rod for the right, according to The New York Times.
“While deserving respect for the time he has served our country in uniform, we feel General Flynn is unfit for serving in this critical post,” a collection of 53 organizations representing Muslim and other religious and human rights group wrote to Trump on Monday. “His appointment will damage America’s standing in the world and pose a threat to our national security.”
While not referring specifically to the pizza conspiracy theory, the groups asserted that “General Flynn has repeatedly made Islamophobic statements and peddled anti-Muslim conspiracy theories,” including his much-noted comment early this year that “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL.” The groups also pointed to a “blatantly anti-Semitic tweet” that Flynn apologized for in July, after he retweeted a post critical of CNN that included the words: “Not anymore, Jews.”
The Obama White House took a swipe Monday at the traffic in conspiracy theories, without referring to Flynn by name.
“We all hold a responsibility, regardless of whether or not we are planning to serve in a government position or if one of our family members is planning to serve in a government position, that we shouldn’t be propagating false things that could inspire violence,” press secretary Josh Earnest told reporters when asked about the incident at the pizza restaurant. “There’s probably some overlap with the golden rule there, I think somewhere, that may be worth considering.”
Flynn didn’t specifically promote the Comet Ping Pong rumors on Twitter, although he promoted related conspiracy theories that were nearly as lurid.
In one tweet Nov. 2, Flynn promoted a “MUST READ!” post from a website called True Pundit alleging that emails found on a laptop owned by former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) — the husband of top Clinton aide Huma Abedin — contained enough evidence “to put Hillary [Clinton] and her crew away for life” for crimes including “child exploitation” and “sex crimes with minors.”
“U decide,” Flynn wrote. But no such emails have ever surfaced.
Two days later, Flynn posed a tweet containing the hashtag “#spiritcooking,” a reference to a bizarre rumor alleging that Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, took part in occult rituals where people consume blood and other bodily fluids. That rumor, based on a wild reading of some Podesta emails that had been released by WikiLeaks, also took off on websites such as the Drudge Report and InfoWars, run by Trump-supporting conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
The “#spiritcooking” rumor soon morphed into the “#pizzagate” conspiracy theory involving Comet Ping Pong, which alleges that virtually the entire D.C. establishment — including the Clintons, Obama, law enforcement and the media — is involved with or covering up a satanic plot to traffic in, sexually abuse and murder children. The debunked allegations have led to death threats and harassment against the restaurant and others associated with Comet, including owners of neighboring businesses and indie musicians who play concerts in the pizzeria’s back room.
While Flynn never promoted the pizza rumors himself, his son Michael Flynn Jr. has done so directly, including Sunday night.
“Until #Pizzagate proven to be false, it’ll remain a story,” tweeted the younger Flynn, who has been working for his father’s international consulting firm. “The left seems to forget #PodestaEmails and the many ‘coincidences’ tied to it.”
While the Flynns are in the fake-news spotlight now, one author on the topic says the influence of conspiracy series in U.S. politics dates back to the American Revolution.
“We have had many leaders in American history that have been conspiratorial in their thinking,” said Joseph Uscinski, author of “American Conspiracy Theories” and a political science professor at the University Miami. “But we just don’t know about it because they didn’t have Twitter accounts.”
Nonetheless, he said the trend can go too far, especially given Trump’s own track record.
“If you have a conspiracy theorist in the White House, you probably don’t need any more in the inner circle,” Uscinski said.
The former military officer who knows Flynn well suggested that his former boss may have a proclivity for misinformation because of his long career in secret intelligence. “He also fancies himself as someone who is skilled as manipulation of actual fact in order to affect movement downstream,” the ex-officer said, recalling that the U.S. military strategy in Afghanistan included spreading false information through the media to see how it might affect the enemy.
“If this is another example of his willingness to manipulate information in order to have a specific end goal it would not be a complete departure, I suppose,” the former officer said.
What is most disconcerting to some is the influence Flynn will soon have in the White House.
The national security adviser “is the nexus where all the tools of foreign and national security policy come together,” said David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy magazine and author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.”
“This is the least experienced president in American history,” Rothkopf added. “That means that his advisers are more important than they have ever been. Getting balanced advice to the president is more important than ever.”
Bob King contributed to this report.
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