The former military intelligence chief has been an opponent of US quarterbacking for jihadis in Syria, and is a lot better on US-Russian ties than the likes of Gen. Breedlove
As the military's top spy, Michael Flynn repeatedly butted heads with the Obama administration during a rocky tenure in which he was ultimately forced out. He then broke ranks with most national security leaders in Washington when he became one of the earliest backers of Donald Trump.
Now Flynn, 57, who has both briefed Trump in person and penned memos for him, has emerged as more than a valued informal adviser — he’s a potential running-mate.
Trump associates say that Flynn has been the subject of growing discussions inside the campaign, as Trump himself has signaled publicly that he is exploring a running mate beyond the ranks of politicians, including from the military.
“I like the generals. I like the concept of the generals. We're thinking about — actually there are two of them that are under consideration,” Trump said Wednesday on Fox News.
Flynn is one of them, according to two people close to Trump. The head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, Flynn has advised the candidate on the Islamic State, Iran and the military, according to a Trump associate familiar with the discussions. And he’s briefed Trump in-person at Trump Tower, beginning last fall ahead of a debate focused on foreign affairs.
But there is a twist to the retired three-star Army general’s resume: he’s a Democrat. That could showcase bipartisan appeal — or it could further add to Trump’s ongoing challenges in unifying a fractured Republican Party.
“If someone were to look it up right now, I'm a registered Democrat, and I'm OK with that,” Flynn told Foreign Policy last year, adding he’s "about as centrist as possible."
By relying on the retired general and floating his interest in a vice president from the military, Trump is seeking to burnish his national security and foreign policy bona fides. To do it, he has chosen a forceful and increasingly vocal hawk who is more than willing to ruffle feathers and has recently promulgated views that have led some of his longtime colleagues to say they barely recognize the highly capable military officer.
“Somehow Mike Flynn has blown a gasket," said one senior U.S. official with ties to him who was not authorized to speak publicly. "He is so angry with this administration that he has forgotten his New England roots."
The New York Post earlier this week reported that Flynn was being actively vetted, which the retired general did not deny. “One of the things I expect Mr. Trump would look for in a vice president is discretion,” Flynn told the paper. Trump sources said Flynn was actively under consideration but declined to say he if was being vetted.
Other top potential Trump running mates include Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mike Pence of Indiana and former Speaker Newt Gingrich. Two senators, after being very publicly floated, Joni Ernst and Bob Corker, took themselves out of contention this week. Trump himself has said the list is as long as 10 names.
Some in Trump’s campaign believe that Trump himself projects sufficient strength on matters of national security, and that the Manhattan mogul would be better off dipping into the broader pool of candidates with legislative and political experience.
Flynn, who served several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, has also been a reliable Trump surrogate. For example, he called for Clinton to resign over her use of a private email server at the State Department, telling CNN that “if it were me, I would have been out the door and probably in jail" and blasting a “lack of accountability, frankly, in a person who should have been much more responsible in her actions."
He has shaped some of Trump's views, including disdain for the recent nuclear agreement with Iran and calls for a far more aggressive strategy to confront Islamic extremism at home and abroad — a "grave danger" he says "threatens our way of life."
And the influence may flow both ways: Flynn, in an awfully Trump-sounding turn of phrase, recently told the Observer newspaper, which is owned by Trump's son-in-law, that the next president has "to be very cautious listening to those who are politically correct — we need seriously candid and meaningful advice and solutions right now."
Much like Trump likes to keep things in the family, Flynn's son, Michael G. Flynn, serves as a chief adviser. His son has been retweeting news stories speculating about a Trump-Flynn ticket in recent days, and Flynn himself has been tweeting pro-Trump materials aggressively.
Like the candidate, he has been a vocal — and for the military, highly unusual — critic of business as usual in Washington.
Since leaving government, Flynn has angered U.S. officials over his friendly ties to Russia, with which he has publicly advocated better relations and military cooperation in the Middle East — a departure from the official Pentagon line. He even recently sat at the head table at a dinner in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin, whom Trump has praised.
In addition to his unwelcome warnings after the killing of Osama bin Laden that the brand of terrorism he represented was still alive and well, Flynn also met resistance in the Obama administration by trying to reform the 17,000-strong DIA.
In December, he told a congressional committee that there are "some who abuse the system so badly that it makes corrupt governments in Third World nations blush." He went as far as recommending that “half or more” of the civilian workforce in the Pentagon be let go, amounting to some 400,000 government jobs — a proposal bordering on sacrilege in DC's corridors of power.
"He was not political while he was in uniform because of his professionalism," said Graham Plaster, a Navy officer and informal adviser to Flynn who is in contact with him regularly. "Now that his personal views are emerging that is because he has the benefit of being a civilian. I think the big contrast people are seeing, especially from inside the Pentagon, is simply due to the transition out of uniform."
Flynn, who did not respond to a request for an interview through his publicist, has described himself as a "rugged individualism" type. He hails from a large Irish Catholic family and lists surfing, running, fishing, and reading fiction as his hobbies.
“I didn’t walk out like a lot of guys and go to big jobs in Northrop Grumman or Booz Allen [Hamilton] or some of these other big companies [like] Raytheon,” he told Foreign Policy magazine. “I’m very independent, and it’s very liberating actually. I’m not going to be a general that just fades away."
Flynn held some of the top military intelligence positions over the course of his 33-year military career. He served the director of intelligence for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, and the Joint Special Operations Command — culminating in the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Others who know him say he is uniquely — and sometimes brutally — direct, exhibiting a candor that is rare in Washington.
"An awful lot of people don't want to be the bearer of bad tidings to a boss — especially if the boss gets upset with something he doesn't like," said former CIA Director Jim Woolsey, who is also a partner in Flynn Intel Group, the general's consulting firm. "Mike plays it straight and I don't think he does so in an offensive way, trying to make a scrap. He is straightforward and clear. And if he thinks X is going badly, he will say, 'that seems to be going badly for the following three reasons.' He doesn't dance around and try to say what the boss may want to hear."
Indeed, Flynn hasn't always agreed with the presumptive GOP nominee himself.
For example, he has publicly distanced himself from Trump's highly controversial support for using torture to glean intelligence from suspected terrorists and to target the family members of terrorist leaders.
"I don’t agree with everything that he said," Flynn told Al Jazeera English. But he’s an individual who’s willing to take on a challenge."
Flynn explained that he was trying to help Trump achieve "more precision in the use of the language that he uses as the potential leader of the free world. There has to be more precision, and those are the types of pieces of advice that I’m trying to get into him to say [to] be more precise, be more conscious about what you say about foreign policy issues because they are complicated.”
Flynn has expressed other views that seem in conflict with Trump, who has said the United States cannot police the world. "We must be capable of nation building, negotiating, and fighting all at the same time," Flynn wrote in Small Wars Journal, when he was a two-star general in 2011.
The growing chatter about his key role in the Trump campaign coincides with his new book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” scheduled for release July 12. A vice presidential trial balloon certainly would drive interest in the text, and possibly juice sales.
He teamed up on the book with Michael Ledeen, a prominent member of a group of scholars and former government officials that helped shape the views of many top national security leaders in the George W. Bush administration. Ledeen said Flynn has plans to be in Cleveland, site of the Republican National Convention, next week, and described a man who sounded a lot like Trump — brash, bold and unconcerned with how he’s perceived.
“Flynn is not the type of guy who calculates the consequences of what he’s about to say,” said Ledeen. “He answers the question.”
Plaster, one of Flynn’s confidantes, predicted that whether or not Trump selected him for the VP slot, Flynn is likely to play an influential role in a Trump administration, possibly as director of national intelligence.
"He is the kind of people that people want to follow."