There’s been a lot of nonsense ricocheting around over last night’s resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn.
No, there isn’t a scintilla of evidence that Flynn is guilty of treason or seditious conspiracy. None either to support the fetid theory that he’s a Russian agent or even that he was being blackmailed by Moscow—the Justice Department only raised that possibility because it thought he might have concealed the truth from Trump. Conjecture on Twitter that this is somehow an impeachable offense is also bunk. Even if Trump ordered Flynn to discuss the lifting of sanctions on Russia, he’s the president, entitled to shape his foreign policy as he sees fit.
Flynn, far from being an ice-countenanced KGB agent wearing a bearskin hat and enigmatically smoking a cigarette, is a tragic figure. You might be tempted to identify his story as a tragicomedy, given the laughable floundering of his administration in recent days, but no, just a tragedy, the sort perfected by the Greeks in which talented and venerable characters are crashed by their own hubris. Flynn is a decorated retired army lieutenant general who served valiantly in Grenada and later Afghanistan and was regarded as one of the most talented military men of his generation; he is now the first official to be pushed out by both the Obama and Trump administrations.
We may never know exactly how grievous Flynn’s infraction was. Does he really have the faulty memory that he claims he does, which led him to neglect the fact that sanctions had been mentioned in his talk with the Russian ambassador when he later spoke to Mike Pence? Pence certainly seems to doubt that, and no surprise. The vice president wound up humiliating himself on national television when he dispensed false information, leading to speculation that he could be the liar, and subsequent confrontations with Flynn where the general refused to take full responsibility didn’t help.
So was Flynn’s crime merely his arrogant behavior toward Pence? Or was he knowingly freelancing on behalf of American-Russian relations? Or was he even acting with the full knowledge of his boss? Expect American pundits, writhing in the paranoia of another red scare, to decide on the latter, stretch it further into the realm of the conspiratorial, and bolster their suspicions by repeatedly invoking Flynn’s notorious dinner with Vladimir Putin.
That dubious meal, along with Flynn’s assertion that “fear of Muslims is rational” and his reported penchant for “Flynn facts” (alternative facts before alternative facts were cool, usually characterized by hysteria over Iran), suggest a self-destructive and slightly off-the-rails psyche. Still, allow some sympathy this morning for the scrappy Catholic kid from Rhode Island who served his country more honorably than most of us ever will, even if he ultimately flew too close to Alex Jones’ sun. Flynn proved he has at least some good judgment back in 2015 when he said that drones create more terrorists than they kill and called the invasion of Iraq a “tragic mistake.” He’s wrought a hell of a lot less destruction on the world than, say, Dan Senor, yet only the latter will ever have lifetime tenure in Washington and be feted on the cable rounds.
So now Trump is looking for a new national security advisor, with Vice Admiral Robert Harward and David Petraeus (another tragic figure in his own right) both under consideration. There’s been a lot of caterwauling lately about how Trump is building an autocratic regime in America. But authoritarians are generally competent sorts, able managers who inspire loyalty in those around them and can consolidate power underneath themselves, even if their reigns ultimately prove to be disastrous. Trump, for whom Flynn’s ousting is only the latest example of his administration’s constant disarray, seems an unlikely fit. He might have been a tragic figure too, except that more people are laughing rather than crying.