Michael Flynn Pardoned: A Probable End to a Weird, Winding Saga
For most on the left, he acted with craven criminality. But for many on the right, the former national security adviser’s plight became a cause célèbre.
President Trump announced the pardon of his initial national security adviser, the retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, on Wednesday.
“It is my Great Honor to announce that General Michael T. Flynn has been granted a Full Pardon. Congratulations to @GenFlynn and his wonderful family,” the president tweeted. He noted a holiday timing: “I know you will now have a truly fantastic Thanksgiving!”
Flynn originally resigned amid reports he had misled Mike Pence, then the incoming vice president, during the 2016-2017 transition between administrations. He later pled guilty to lying to the Federal Bureau of Investigation about his communications with Russia’s envoy in America, Sergey Kislyak, after drawing the attention of Special Counsel Robert Mueller.
Flynn’s downfall was perhaps the most significant of the winding “Russiagate” saga that dominated much of Trump’s term and now remains a source of furor on the right. After Flynn exited the White House in February 2017, what followed was a complex array of legal twists and turns, including a move to withdraw his plea, the later intervention of Trump’s attorney general William Barr, several sentencing delays and Flynn’s sacking of his own counsel in favor of Sidney Powell, now a celebrity attorney most recently involved in Trump’s doomed effort to reverse the results of the 2020 election.
Trump’s pardon on Wednesday was a downright expected open salvo, that is, in a possible flurry of clemency actions initiated by the president in the concluding days of his administration. Such action by Trump could plausibly include an attempt to pardon himself, something legal experts are hardly unanimous is even allowed.
Of the president’s various political contacts, ex-Trump consigliere Roger Stone, ex-Bush aide Lewis Libby, and ex-Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich have notably been given an out from the justice system. Stone’s troubles were Russia-related while the latter duo was made up of figures from past political eras that attracted Trump’s sympathy. It is not clear if Trump will try to wipe the slate clean for his former top campaign men Paul Manafort (under a legal dragnet for separate, murky Russia ties since Trump took power, and who was briefly incarcerated) and Steve Bannon (recently indicted in an unrelated matter) before all is said and done.
But it has been Flynn’s case that the right has charged as the apotheosis of a broader political witch-hunt. Trump’s acolytes and others, including some leftist critics of the intelligence community, say the inquiry constituted an essentially baseless assault on the president from the start of his days in Washington.
A counterterrorism whiz, Flynn served in the Army and as President Barack Obama’s Defense Intelligence Agency chief. He flamed out with the 44th president, and later became a prominent surrogate for Trump during his rise to power (he was even vetted for vice president). Obama specifically counseled Trump against retaining Flynn’s services, wary of what he saw as the ex-general’s proven, reckless style.
Flynn was known at DIA as an uncompromising Iran hawk, later co-authoring a book with neoconservative godfather Michael Ledeen and forging a political identity in his own right. It wasn’t always pretty. While under consideration for Trump’s ticket, Flynn’s off-hand revelation (later reversed) to a reporter that he favored abortion rights betrayed a lack of understanding of the seriousness of that apostasy on the American right, and essentially sunk his outsider bid to be Trump’s principal deputy. That he joined in on the calls to incarcerate Trump’s political rival Hillary Clinton, essentially the marinade of Trump’s rallies in 2016, inspired horror among some in the military elite.
But Trump looked past the concerns of his predecessor, the ups and downs of the campaign and the snipes from Flynn’s rivals in the brass. In his briefest of tenures atop the National Security Council, Flynn notably installed Bannon on the powerful body and declared that Washington was putting Iran “on notice.” Both moves attracted controversy, though Obama had also given a senior political aide, David Axelrod, that kind of power when upon entering office and Flynn’s pronouncement presaged a ferocious line on Iran out of the White House that his demise hardly altered.
To his defenders, Flynn’s ordeal has been a political hit job of the highest order. His tale has attracted the sympathy even of those who have rejected the president, such as the columnist Eli Lake, who in a lengthy essay pronounced Flynn’s prosecution as a “railroading.”
Others have more or less argued that if there wasn’t smoke on the Russia matter, there was fire in other areas of Flynn’s professional life. Notably, Flynn had extensive, paid ties to Reccip Tayyip Erdogan’s government in Turkey that were not widely disclosed to the public ahead of his attempt at capstone government service. Trump and his team’s management of the relationship with Ankara has made critics uneasy, with some alleging, like Flynn once did, that Trump is angling for a financial cut. It’s a contention that’s fiercely denied by the president’s devotees. Others have defended Trump’s moves, which include pulling back from the alliance with Erdogan’s Kurdish opponents, as sound policy and in the U.S. national interest.
But the Turkish connection could plausibly bedevil Flynn further, or so observe some. “To my great frustration,” said Benjamin H. Friedman of Defense Priorities on Wednesday. “Reporting on Flynn’s crimes and pardon inevitably leaves out how, alongside his retracted guilty plea about lying to the FBI, he admitted to being an unregistered agent for Turkey.”
Friedman pointed out: “It’s unclear if the pardon covers that felony.”