One of the great mysteries of Washington right now is: Why is Donald Trump risking his presidency for retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn?
It would be the easiest thing in the world for Trump to let Flynn go down for dumb professional sins, most obviously not reporting that he was lobbying for Turkey. But instead Trump has stuck with Flynn through an embarrassing series of stories on his ties to Russia. He stuck with him even when he knew Flynn was under investigation for the Turkey deal. He stuck with him when Sally Yates said he'd lied about contact with the Russians. And he may wind up destroying his presidency by asking Jim Comey take it easy on Flynn.
What, Washington is reasonably asking, does Flynn have on Trump?
That may be the right question. Flynn’s lawyer suggested he has a “story to tell.”
But an old book and a new movie hint at something else, that Flynn brought from the military and from Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s band of brothers a trait that Trump, a self-described “loyalty freak,” values above others: personal loyalty.
Flynn arrived in Trump’s camp after a long career as part of the tight, combative inner circle around another American leader, McChrystal. He rose through the ranks on McChrystal’s coattails, and played a central role in another great public crisis: the 2010 downfall of McChrystal and his loyal men after they were quoted in Rolling Stone trashing their civilian masters.
The new movie War Machine, out on May 26 on Netflix, includes a thinly veiled portrait of Flynn as Gen. Greg Pulver, the top aide to Brad Pitt’s arrogant US general in Afghanistan. As played by Anthony Michael Hall, Pulver makes up for being somewhat dense with awe-inspiring, fierce personal devotion to his boss.
“His official title was director of intelligence, but all I saw was a guy with anger management issues whose life had no meaning without” the general, based obviously on Stanley McChrystal.
Hall plays the character broad in a movie that is often a broad satire, but the moment when a Flynn learns that his team’s antics have cost McChrystal his job is genuinely moving.
The movie is fiction, and at pains not to be taken for biography. But Pulver is obviously based on Flynn, a core member of McChrystal’s inner circle who had, by Michael Hastings’ account in the book on which the movie was based, served under McChrystal three times before they headed to Afghanistan.
“When we alerted for Afghanistan in May of 2009, the first two officers I sought to form the nucleus of the team were Charlie and his older brother Mike,” McChrystal writes in his memoir.
Mike Flynn, McChrystal writes admiringly, was “pure energy,” and the brothers were part of a small and loyal team around their leader. Hastings, our former BuzzFeed colleague who died in 2013, described as “a handpicked collection of killers, spies, fighter jocks, patriots, political operatives, counterinsurgency experts, and outright maniacs, the likes of which the American military has never seen.”
Flynn comes across in Hastings’ reporting in The Operators as a particularly out-of-control figure. “How the hell did you ever get your security clearance?” Flynn is asked at one point. “I lied,” he replies.
The writer and director of War Machine, David Michôd, confirmed to me that he had McChrystal’s inner circle in mind in while he was writing the film.
“The loyalty felt like a hugely important part of that bunch of guys,” he said in an email. “A bunch of guys collectively propping up a delusion. And they do this with their unwavering loyalty and admiration for the General. And I know this to be true of these guys in the real world."
The most common mistake in American journalism these days is overthinking Donald Trump — imputing a strategy, or even a plan, to a cipher who operates on impulse and gut. He has always surrounded himself with a certain kind of man — die-hard loyalists, whose loyalty he mostly returns, sometimes after he fires them.
A friend of Flynn, Michael Isikoff reported today, described the general and the president as "brothers in a foxhole." And Peter Alexander reported this week that when Flynn, already mired in scandal last fall, requested the job of national security adviser, “Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump made it clear President-elect Trump would certainly approve of that request to reward Flynn’s loyalty.”
Even after he'd forced Flynn out — and on the day he would have his fateful dinner with Comey — Trump was grumbling in public that his former aide-de-camp had been treated “very, very unfairly.”
Flynn was also in the Paris bar in 2010 where the soldiers’ drunken revel ended the general’s career — though not the general’s loyalty to the men whose anonymous comments created the crisis.
I don’t know if any of those notorious quotes about Biden and Obama come from Flynn. But McChrystal, in his own memoir, doesn’t blame his staff for his fall. And Trump, too, appears ready to return Flynn’s loyalty to the bitter end.
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
Contact Ben Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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