Barack Obama warned his successor against hiring Michael Flynn. It was Nov. 10, 2016, just two days after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. Trump told aide Hope Hicks that he was bewildered by the president’s warning. Of all the important things Obama could have discussed with him, the outgoing commander in chief wanted to talk about Michael Flynn.
The question of why Obama was so focused on Flynn is especially revealing now. The Department of Justice recently filed to withdraw charges against the retired three-star general for making false statements to the FBI in a Jan. 24, 2017, interview regarding a phone call with a Russian diplomat. The circumstances surrounding the call and subsequent FBI interview have given rise to a vast conspiracy theory that was weaponized to imprison a decorated war hero and a strategic thinker whose battlefield innovations saved countless American lives. There is no evidence that Flynn “colluded” with Russia, and the evidence that Flynn did not make false statements to the FBI has been buried by the bureau, including current Director Christopher Wray.
So if the Obama administration wasn’t alarmed by Flynn’s nonexistent ties to Russia, why was he Obama’s No. 1 target? Why were officials from the previous administration intercepting his phone calls with the Russian ambassador?
The answer is that Obama saw Flynn as a signal threat to his legacy, which was rooted in his July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Flynn had said long before he signed on with the Trump campaign that it was a catastrophe to realign American interests with those of a terror state. And now that the candidate he’d advised was the new president-elect, Flynn was in a position to help undo the deal. To stop Flynn, the outgoing White House ran the same offense it used to sell the Iran deal—they smeared Flynn through the press as an agent of a foreign power, spied on him, and leaked classified intercepts of his conversations to reliable echo chamber allies.
In March 2017, after seeing evidence of the Obama administration’s surveillance of Trump associates, Congressman Devin Nunes said it had nothing to do with Russia or the FBI’s ongoing Russia investigation, or similar Russia probes conducted by congressional committees. Nunes’ contention was difficult to make sense of at the time. Wasn’t everything about Russia and whether or not there was, as Congressman Adam Schiff said, more than circumstantial evidence of collusion?
In fact, as Trump prepared to take office after his 2016 upset victory, the Obama White House was focused on the Middle East. “Russia collusion” was the narrative that Hillary Clinton operatives seeded in the media and fed to the FBI to obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. After the election, the Obama team took it over and used it to hobble the incoming administration.
That Obama has publicly criticized the Justice Department’s decision to withdraw its case against the retired general shows how personal the anti-Flynn campaign still is for the former president. In leaking his supposedly off-hand comments to Michael Isikoff, a journalist whose work was central in pushing the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory, Obama was effectively taking credit for pushing the larger anti-Trump operation that grew out of the anti-Flynn campaign. While the Russia collusion story was a handy instrument for many to advance all manner of personal and political interests, for Obama the purpose of Russiagate was simple and direct: to protect the Iran deal, and secure his legacy.
Obama and his foreign policy team were hardly the only people in Washington who had their knives out for Michael Flynn. Nearly everyone did, especially the FBI. As former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s spy service, and a career intelligence officer, Flynn knew how and where to find the documentary evidence of the FBI’s illegal spying operation buried in the agency’s classified files—and the FBI had reason to be terrified of the new president’s anger.
The United States Intelligence Community (USIC) as a whole was against the former spy chief, who was promising to conduct a Beltway-wide audit that would force each of the agencies to justify their missions. Flynn told friends and colleagues he was going to make the entire senior intelligence service hand in their resignations and then detail why their work was vital to national security. Flynn knew the USIC well enough to know that thousands of higher-level bureaucrats wouldn’t make the cut.
Flynn had enemies at the very top of the intelligence bureaucracy. In 2014, he’d been fired as DIA head. Under oath in February of that year, he told the truth to a Senate committee—ISIS was not, as the president had said, a “JV team.” They were a serious threat to American citizens and interests and were getting stronger. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers then summoned Flynn to the Pentagon and told him he was done.
“Flynn’s warnings that extremists were regrouping and on the rise were inconvenient to an administration that didn’t want to hear any bad news,” says former DIA analyst Oubai Shahbandar. “Flynn’s prophetic warnings would play out exactly as he’d warned shortly after he was fired.”
Flynn’s firing appeared to be an end to one of the most remarkable careers in recent American intelligence history. He made his name during the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers in the field desperately needed intelligence, often collected by other combat units. But there was a clog in the pipeline—the Beltway’s intelligence bureaucracy, which had a stranglehold over the distribution of intelligence.