- By Peter FeaverPeter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.
Michael Flynn’s resignation is the end of the beginning, not the end of the story. It is the end of the beginning of Trump’s unconventional tenure – a bookmark closing one of the most turbulent starts in American presidential history. But it leaves hanging more questions than it answers, and has second and third order implications that are only barely perceivable at present. It is likely the turbulence will continue.
Consider just three:
Which successor to pick? Early reports are that President Trump is inclined to reach for another senior retired general or admiral to take Flynn’s post.
This is understandable: retired generals and admirals have already been vetted by the national security establishment and so have or can quickly get the requisite security clearances; Trump clearly has a reflexive trust in the military, making it easier for one who has not been close to Trump before to quickly establish a bond; many (but by no means all) of the likely civilian candidates were critics of Trump during the campaign and so fall short on the political vetting score; and given the turbulence in the Administration so far, and the difficulty of intra-West Wing politics, Trump will be hard-pressed to recruit the very best civilian talent that could pass political vetting.
However, in the interests of civil-military relations, I would recommend that Trump first try to recruit a qualified civilian. It made sense to grant the waiver to allow General Mattis to become Secretary of Defense Mattis. General John Kelley is a good pick at Homeland Security. But the more Trump’s national security policies take on the appearance of being “run by retired military,” the more the uniformed military institution – the supposedly non-partisan active force — itself gets associated with those policies. This would be problematic even if we were not in the hyper-partisan environment that is our new normal. In the present climate, it is likely to politicize the military more than is healthy for the long-term.
Given his long-standing relationship with Trump, General Flynn was an obvious choice to be NSA – though, in hindsight, obviously also a problematic choice. There is no such obvious choice, civilian or retired military, at this point, which gives Trump the opportunity to weigh other factors more heavily, including the health of civil-military relations. I hope he does so.
And speaking of weighing other factors, the one that should loom largest is this: Trump needs to pick as NSA someone who can manage well relations with the other key figures in the White House who have unusually large roles on national security matters. For the NSC to function as designed, it must be able to seamlessly coordinate not just throughout the interagency but throughout the White House.
The foregoing suggests an out-of-the-box idea: What about Jared Kushner as National Security Advisor? Yes, there is a concern about nepotism, but those concerns have already been bridged with his current appointment. While he does not have an extensive background in national security matters, he does appear already to have a fairly extensive portfolio of responsibilities in that area. Making him NSA would align authority and responsibility more than is currently the case. Moreover, supervising the NSC staff and thus driving the policy development and evaluation process would be an intensive education that would quickly bring him up to speed on the issues he has already been tasked with handling.
And no other candidate would eclipse Kushner on the dimension that is most crucial for success in that position: unquestioned access to a President who trusts him. Sliding Kushner over would seem to offer the best chance to fuse the national security activities of the NSC with the national security activities of the other WH actors.
How to fix the problem of a too-weak NSC rather than a too-strong NSC. The first job of whomever Trump picks will be restoring the strength of the NSC. For the past 8 years, many experts inside and outside of government thought that the problem in the interagency system was an overweening NSC staff – a politically driven White House using an overly large NSC staff to micromanage affairs best delegated to Cabinets and agencies.
The opposite has been the problem of the past several weeks: a weak and demoralized NSC staff still struggling to find a way to serve a President who defies convention and does not want to operate according to traditional bureaucratic systems.
The rocky transition has been made even more difficult with the Trump administration’s decision to set up a parallel national security policymaking structure in the White House, the Strategic Initiatives Group, with responsibilities that overlap those of the traditional NSC staff — but with a much flatter structure, closer connection to the President, and a much higher appetite for risk.
Flynn was struggling to protect NSC’s prerogatives even as he fought for his own job. In losing the latter fight did he also lose the former? How will his successor manage?
Moreover, how to repair NSC staff morale as more and more dominoes fall? A rather high proportion of the new NSC staff got their position by virtue of their personal connection with Flynn. That suggests that if Trump brings in someone from outside, he or she may well wish to make further personnel changes, as well as corresponding changes to an organization chart optimized to suit Flynn’s personality. It is possible that replacing Flynn will result in the bureaucratic equivalent of a “hard reset” of the NSC staff, with all of the attendant loss of momentum, weakened morale, and follow-on disruptions.
What to do with the controversies surrounding Russian relations in light of Russian interference in the U.S. election? Partisans are making short-sighted arguments about the Logan Act, as if what was unusual was Flynn’s discussions with the Russians during the transition. This seems far-fetched. Every incoming Administration has general conversations about policy and future relations with foreign governments. If Flynn violated the Logan Act in those phone calls, so did a significant portion of the Obama team in 2008 – and perhaps so did Democrat Congresswoman Tuisi Gabbard on her recent trip to Syria.
The Justice Department is not going to make the first prosecution under a 200-plus year law over an incoming National Security Advisor signaling to his Russian counterparts that the new administration intends to honor its much-publicized campaign promise of seeking a fresh start in relations with another government, and asking that government to be patient in the meantime.
What made the matter a firing offense was the way Flynn misrepresented the substance of the phone call both publicly and to the Vice President. That misrepresentation opened Flynn up to blackmail, since the Russians could easily rebut it by releasing an audiotape of the call, and put the Vice President on record saying something that was provably false.
But what likely led Flynn to misrepresent his actions — what set all that up in the first place — was the truly exceptional part of the story: Russian interference in the U.S. election, specifically stealing emails and selectively releasing them to embarrass the Democrat candidate. It was not unusual for a senior incoming administration official to be signaling a policy change to a foreign government. It was unusual for the foreign government receiving those signals to have played such a prominent and meddling role in the campaign. In light of that, Flynn should have been extra cautious in dealing with Russia, regardless of the policy direction the Trump team wanted to pursue.
Flynn’s departure will fuel Congressional efforts to investigate Russia’s involvement in the campaign, which could culminate in the establishment of an independent commission modeled on the 9/11 Commission, or possibly even an Independent Counsel modeled on the investigation of the Iran-Contra controversy. And what the second and third order effects of that kind of development are very hard to predict at this point.
The Trump administration was already off to a rocky start, and it is likely to get rockier before things improve. For the country’s sake, I hope everyone in the administration from the President on down uses this unexpected crisis to clean up their internal national security processes and belatedly establish a well-functioning system.
Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images