Military Times

Within Trump's National Security Council, Flynn's exit may be the first of many

WASHINGTON — Michael Flynn's stunning resignation as national security adviser is likely to create more near-term turmoil at the White House and prolong the Trump administration's outward appearance of dysfunction as lawmakers and critics challenge the new president's judgment and seek to portray him and his team as undisciplined.

Flynn, a retired three-star Army general who led the Defense Intelligence Agency, announced his departure Monday night amid reports he lied to Vice President Mike Pence and other senior administration officials about his post-election interaction with a Russian diplomat.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers within both political parties were exasperated. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., on Tuesday called Flynn's resignation tangible proof "this administration is incoherent on national security."

McCain and Trump have sparred for months over the new president's views toward Russia. More recently, the powerful senator has taken aim at the president's controversial immigration order, which focuses on seven countries with Muslim majorities, and last month's counter-terror raid in Yemen, which the administration insists was a success while opponents characterize it as a sloppily executed failure likely to leave America less safe.

In vowing to step up congressional oversight of the new administration, McCain said the president and his team must "fix those centers of influence in the White House that lead to a degree of disarray and disorganization the likes of which we have never seen."

The shakeup has even alarmed some within the military's senior-most ranks, leaders looking to the White House for clear, cohesive guidance on how to direct the nation's increasingly complex and sensitive operations abroad. Speaking Tuesdayat a conference outside Washington, the head of U.S. Special Operations Command, Army Gen. Tony Thomas, lamented the "unbelievable turmoil" within Trump's government.

Kori Schake, who served on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, went so far as to suggest Trump's NSC is compromised by foreign spies. She highlighted North Korea's ballistic missile test on Saturday, and subsequent reportsthat Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reviewed and discussed sensitive intelligence while dinner patrons at the president's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida watched and uploaded photos to social media.

"The likeliest outcome isn't straightening this out," said Schake, a former senior Pentagon official who also served as an adviser to McCain during his failed bid for the presidency in 2008, "but more scattershot craziness because the president himself is so undisciplined."

Keith Kellogg, a retired three-star Army general whom Trump asked to fill in as national security adviser, is among at least three former military officers being considered to replace Flynn, according to reports. One is Robert Harward, a Navy SEAL who retired in 2014 as the three-star deputy commander at U.S. Central Command. In that role, Harward worked for then-Gen. James Mattis, now Trump's defense secretary, who led CENTCOM until his retirement from the Marine Corps in 2013.

The other potential candidate is ex-CIA Director David Petraeus, a retired Army four-star and counterinsurgency guru. Petraeus ran afoul of the law by sharing classified information with his biographer, with whom he had an extramarital affair, and remains on probation. That could complicate his ability to secure the necessary security clearances.

In the near term, it's safe to anticipate additional shakeups within the National Security Council, said Loren deJonge Schulman, who worked for President Barack Obama's national security adviser, Susan Rice. To date, most NSC appointments include people close to Flynn, she noted.

Whoever Trump selects will enter a complicated, challenging environment, Schulman said. The president has given unprecedented authority to his chief political strategist, Stephen K. Bannon, a move that's been met with widespread concern by national security experts who fear Bannon could have improper influence over an advisory body that is expected to make recommendations unimpeded by political considerations.

"Any NSA candidate should insist on two things to succeed in the job: full control over all national security issues going to the president, including overruling Bannon, and initiating a transparent, inclusive NSC process that makes use of the experts on his or her staff and in national security departments," Schulman said. "Without those requirements, expect to see more of the same from the Trump White House — especially if Bannon uses this period to consolidate power over national security policy process."

Democrats in Congress want a full-scale investigation into Flynn's interaction with the Russians to understand whether anyone else close to Trump knew about the scope of his activity, which centered on the Obama administration's sanctions issued in response to Moscow's purported interference in last year's U.S. presidential election. U.S. intelligence officials concluded that Russia sought to tip the election for Trump.

Former Michigan Rep. John Dingell, who had been the longest serving member of the House, challenged Republicans to demand answers, saying on Twitter that "Flynn's resignation CANNOT be end of the story. Who talked to who? ... How far up did it go?"

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, called the Democrats' calls "way overblown," saying that he doesn't blame Trump for Flynn's mistakes. 


Don't expect Trump's political opponents to go silent, though. Many Democrats on Capitol Hill think it may be impossible for the president to rebuild trust in his National Security Council. The first step, said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., is for the president to appoint a national security adviser who "really has the intellectual heft and personal stature to be a leader."

But even then, it may be exceedingly difficult for Trump to win over his harshest critics. When asked how the president can repair his administration's image, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., laughed and shook her head.  "That's up to him," she said. "It's hard to tell what's happening over there. I think all of us at the end of the day want some incredibly important questions answered." 

Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre. Leo Shane III covers Congress and the White House for Military Times. On Twitter: @LeoShane. Aaron Mehta is Defense News associate editor. On Twitter: @AaronMehta. Joe Gould covers Congress for Defense News. On Twitter: @reporterjoe.

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