A Closer Look At Michael Flynn
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's get a picture of one of President-elect Trump's most sharply debated new hires.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
He chose retired Army Lieutenant General Mike Flynn as his national security adviser.
INSKEEP: Flynn was a celebrated Army intelligence officer and was also forced out as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
MARTIN: He's a man known for energy and smarts, who also spent much of the presidential campaign on social media, sharing conspiracy theories and false news stories.
INSKEEP: NPR's Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman has covered General Flynn for years, and he's in our studios. Tom, good morning.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
MARTIN: We also want to note that we're going to hear from Mike Flynn himself because we had a long talk with him back in August. We'll play parts of that. But first, Tom, you've known General Flynn for a long time. Talk to us a little bit about what his reputation was before he became politically involved.
BOWMAN: He was a highly respected military intelligence officer. He worked with General Stanley McChrystal in Iraq and Afghanistan. He would meet with reporters, talk to them on background about what was going on in both countries. And again, very, very respected.
INSKEEP: Wanted to meet with reporters not just to talk to them, but to learn from them. Is that right?
BOWMAN: That's right. If you would embed with U.S. forces, let's say, you would go places that he couldn't go. And you'd come back, and the bazaar would be open. He would say, what did you see out there? And you would talk with him about what you saw. And you say, oh, by the way, what's going on with this issue that you can help me with?
INSKEEP: So a guy who's gathering information, trying to learn about the world. Now, we did talk with General Flynn back in August during the campaign and tried to get a sense of his view of the world. Let's listen to a little bit of that interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
INSKEEP: Who's the enemy of the United States right now?
MICHAEL FLYNN: Well, I think those - those countries that have a view of the world that is an anti-West and certainly anti-United States view of the world. And they - they see us - in some cases, they see us trying to impose our way of life around the world. And in those countries - and I lay them out in the book - those countries include, you know, certainly Russia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, countries like Cuba, certainly China.
INSKEEP: And he's referring to a book that he had published over the summer. What do you hear in that recording, Tom Bowman?
BOWMAN: What I'm hearing is General Flynn is in line with other officials, like Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joe Dunford, who said at his confirmation hearing last year that Russia was the greatest threat. And clearly others have mentioned, of course - cited North Korea, Iran, China, maybe not Cuba. But, you know, he's in line with the mainstream concerns of people.
INSKEEP: You mentioned Russia. He just mentioned Russia. Let's listen to a little bit more of that because he's going to be working for a president who has repeatedly rejected U.S. intelligence assessments that Russia interfered in the U.S. election, has spoken in a positive way about President Vladimir Putin, has spoken critically of NATO, which faces Russia. Flynn sounds a little different in our interview from a few months ago.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
FLYNN: And when we think about countries like Russia, countries like Cuba, countries like Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, I mean, these are - in many cases, these are criminal enterprises that - that have dictatorships and certainly tyrants. I mean, the idea of tyranny inside of those countries is very real.
MARTIN: General Flynn went on to say that people living in those countries are subjected to both real consequences, places where there's no rule of law. And he says that we - America - has to continue to respect the rule of laws what he said in that interview. So, Tom, what do you make of that?
BOWMAN: Well, what he's saying is what the Obama administration is saying members of congress are saying that there's a great concern with places like Russia, with Vladimir Putin. There's a great deal of concern here. And what Flynn is saying, again, is echoing what the Obama administration is saying.
INSKEEP: And somewhat different in fact, sharply different from what his new boss, President-elect Trump has been saying about Russia, downplaying many of these.
BOWMAN: Absolutely. You know, Trump has said he admires Putin. He's a great leader, but people like Mike Flynn are going to tell him, listen, we have great deal of concerns about Russia.
INSKEEP: Although wasn't there a controversy about Flynn going and ended up sitting - being photographed sitting next to Vladimir Putin at an event that was seen on RT, the Russian television channel?
BOWMAN: Absolutely. A lot of people complained about that, and Flynn basically said, hey, listen, you know, RT is like MSNBC or any station in the United States - not necessarily true.
BOWMAN: But, yeah...
INSKEEP: I mean, you could say - you could say you don't like their coverage, but it's not government-directed coverage.
BOWMAN: Absolutely, right. That was a great concern, and Flynn just kind of brushed it off. So it is sort of a head-scratcher. On the one hand, he's concerned about Russia in some respects. On the other hand, he's going over there and sitting next to Putin.
INSKEEP: Let's listen to one more bit of General Flynn from this interview over the summer. We were asking about his approach to ISIS. And, like his new boss, he says he wants a stronger approach.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
FLYNN: Trust me. I mean, I have - I have spoken to friends in Saudi, friends in Egypt, friends in Kuwait, friends in Qatar, friend in UAE, and they don't know where the U.S. stands, Steve. They just don't know. They really are confused as to what the U.S. strategy is, as am I - where we've tied the hands of not only our military, but our diplomats and our - and those involved in the economic kinds of things that we can bring to bear as well. So a lot of tools that we have to offer and to use, but we just aren't - we're not synchronizing them. We're not putting them all together the way they need to be.
INSKEEP: OK, tied the hands of our military - one of the things that he said there. What do you hear there, Tom Bowman?
BOWMAN: Well, what I'm hearing is - and I know this for a fact - that the Trump transition team is looking at any sort of restrictions, limitations that the Obama administration has put on the military in places like Iraq and Syria fighting.
INSKEEP: Do you mean, like, rules of engagement, as they say...
INSKEEP: ...When people can fire, when they can be on battlefield.
BOWMAN: Right - how close the American special operators can be, how close to the front lines they can be. They're looking at all those limitations and could likely change them, so you could see more Americans closer to the front line, maybe more bombing runs as a result. And, also, I think they want to see the Arab nations kind of step up, as the Obama administration has, and provide more support against ISIS.
INSKEEP: OK, this is something that Trump has said. You just noted the Obama administration also tried to get Arab nations to fight more fiercely against ISIS.
INSKEEP: How's that been working?
BOWMAN: It has not been working well. The Arabs basically say, why don't you go in first, and then we'll follow you? And that's been a problem for many years now - that Jordan and Saudi Arabia are doing something but not enough that the Americans want them to do.
INSKEEP: OK, let me ask about the social media side of this man because he tweeted earlier this year, fear of Muslims is rational, and passed on this video that I think a lot of people would argue with the content of. He passed on conspiracy theories about an alleged sex - I don't even want to say alleged - a completely false story about a sex ring involving Hillary Clinton. He passed this on during the campaign. His son continued to pass this on as recently as this past weekend and has now been removed from the transition team. How do you explain that side of General Flynn?
BOWMAN: I can't explain it. And people have said, listen, it doesn't jive, this respected Mike Flynn who worked in Iraq and Afghanistan and this guy who's screaming lock her up or putting out these tweets. They don't know what's going on here. And some people, like Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs, have said, this is not the Mike Flynn I remember.
INSKEEP: Not the Mike Flynn that they - they remember somebody else who was a little more measured...
INSKEEP: ...In his commentary.
BOWMAN: That's right.
INSKEEP: And we're hearing a little bit of that more measured side in this interview from a few months ago.
BOWMAN: That's right.
INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much for coming by. Really appreciate it.
BOWMAN: You're welcome, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman talking with us this morning about the new national security adviser, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.