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.
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.
Christie and his top aides on the transition brought this list and others in binders to a meeting on the 25th floor of Trump Tower shortly after the election. The goal of the meeting was to begin to review names for top jobs in the administration, according to the two sources familiar with the transition.
Also in attendance were Bannon, Rick Dearborn, Sen. Jeff Sessions, and Trump’s children including Ivanka, Don Jr., Eric, and Jared Kushner. This same group had met every Monday in-person or on a conference call since the transition began in earnest.
Flynn was not on the invitation list but somehow found out about the meeting and crashed it, said two people familiar with the transition.
Ivanka Trump asked Flynn what he would like to do in the administration at the beginning of the session and indicated how grateful she was for Flynn’s help and loyalty to her father. (An administration official clarified that Ivanka Trump wasn’t being serious in asking Flynn which job he would prefer since that was not her role.)
Flynn told the group that he wanted to be secretary of state, secretary of defense, or national security adviser.
By mid-November, the NSA job was officially his.
Some in the administration quickly came to regret Trump’s decision, according to two former White House officials.
Flynn’s starring role on national security and foreign policy in the early days of the White House led to some early missteps with world leaders, including a ham-handed phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which the two sparred over an agreement for the U.S. to accept hundreds of refugees. Other officials were concerned about an influx of Flynn acolytes into the prominent National Security Council — many of whom have since left the administration.
“First off, his hire made the administration look like it had poor vetting and no judgment for the most sensitive position in government,” said one person close to the transition. “It also colored the president’s early interactions with world leaders, like the call Trump had with Australia. It was nutty stuff that no president should be doing, and there he was listening to Mike Flynn.”
All of this has given Flynn a far longer shelf-life beyond the 24 days he spent in the White House.
Trump and Flynn forged their bond during the campaign, when Flynn — a highly decorated retired general who had served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan — became an early supporter.
Often he briefed the president on foreign and national security policy from the campaign trail, according to the former campaign official, alongside Keith Kellogg, a retired lieutenant general who later became the executive secretary of the National Security Council.
He showed off his high degree of loyalty to Trump by delivering a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention in July 2016, where he chanted along with the crowd about locking up Hillary Clinton. Trump even reportedly considered Flynn for his vice president slot.
But once he was installed as national security adviser, Flynn had a hard time managing and organizing the 400-plus people who work as part of the National Security Council. He frequently gave briefings that were internally viewed as superficial — more akin to campaign talking points than in-depth briefing sessions.
While he brought over some military people into the NSC, his presence did not help to attract top Republican talent for foreign policy and national security jobs, an issue that was already a quandary for the Trump administration.
“This is the weakest and least credentialed senior National Security Council staff in recent memory. It’s a combination of not wanting to work for Trump and early on, not wanting to work for Flynn,” said one former Republican NSC staffer. “Normally, it’s a place where every aspiring and ambitious foreign policy person wants to land because it’s so close to the White House and the president.”
Now Flynn and his future hang over the White House and the Republican Congress.
Recent reports indicate that Mueller may have enough evidence to indict both Flynn and his son; if that is the case, then Flynn would be the first official from the administration to face criminal charges, extending the reaches of Mueller’s probe into the White House and not just the campaign.
“You put someone in charge of coordinating the national security apparatus of the most powerful country in the world — essentially, someone not fit for that job,” said the former transition official. “That’s a job that can get you in trouble in a hurry.”
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