Michael Flynn had everything President Donald Trump was looking for in a senior White House national security adviser. He is a retired lieutenant general and though Trump was deferred from military service, he has been enamored of generals. He is a tough-talking, America-First true believer. And he was a critic of President Barack Obama. Flynn fit the Trump mold of wanting to get in-your-face to Democrats and career government officials. In most of his appointments, from the Energy Department to Education to Labor to senior advisers, Trump has delighted in going against the mainstream.
But now, with Flynn’s resignation after embarrassing and potentially damaging revelations about his pre-inaugural contacts with Russia, Trump is in the first major crisis of his presidency – less than two months after taking office. The fun of thumbing his nose at the establishment with appointments like that of right-wing nationalist Steve Bannon as senior strategist is over. Replacing Flynn and restoring confidence in Flynn’s position and confidence in the president himself, in addition to clarifying the U.S. position with regard to Russia, is a test Trump must pass or he risks losing support in Congress and the confidence of the people. Indications already show a drop in Trump’s approval ratings, and a president without significant public support, even if it is less than a majority, cannot govern effectively.
There will be time for Congress to investigate just what Flynn told a Russian ambassador about Trump’s views of the sanctions President Obama imposed after intelligence agencies found a likelihood that Russia was hacking emails to help Trump with the presidency. What he said, and whether he made guarantees of some kind that Trump would lift the sanctions, are questions that must be answered.
The Flynn scandal likely diminishes the possibility that the sanctions will be lifted – though with Trump, anything is possible – but it’s important for the people to know what happened here, and for all of Trump’s connections to Russia, such as they are, to be thoroughly vetted.
Let this be a serious realization to the president as well that the business of governing is not ideological, and that those who are chosen by the chief executive for important positions must be measured first in competence, reason, integrity and experience. Partisan factors can have a place on the list, but not the first place.
President Obama, for example, kept Robert Gates in his administration as secretary of defense. It was a good choice, though Gates had worked for Republican presidents.
Trump has a right to appoint people who share his world view, though that view seems loosely defined, but his inexperience in office demands that he have people around him who know how government works and can help make it work.
The people must hope that Flynn’s extremely poor judgment, in both his contacts with Russia and with his giving misinformation to Vice President Pence about those contacts – whereupon Pence defended him – is an aberration. And they must hope as well that if Donald Trump is learning on the job, he’s keeping careful notes from this experience.
Flynn’s successor will need to be someone with impeccable credentials and without strong ideological leanings. A national security adviser wields tremendous authority at the president’s right hand, and his or her view of the world must be clear-eyed and calm.