Flynn Fallout

The bottom line is that, when a vacuum opens up, someone wants to fill it. And when there are multiple people with competing interests trying to fill it, there will be a power struggle.


I had barely posted my note about Flynn’s NSC and the Trump administration’s potential problems with pushing through arms sales to the Saudis when the word came in that Flynn was resigning. Several people have asked what the implications of this might be, so here are my initial thoughts.

This is certain to make an already unsettled NSC staff even more unsettled. Flynn, regardless of what anyone thinks of him, was the one who was providing direction and guidance to the NSC staff. With him gone, uncertainty about policy, the status of initiatives that are already underway, and frankly the safety of people’s jobs will skyrocket. Although Kellogg, the acting NSA, is reportedly under consideration to take on the job officially, he is a Flynn hire, and may not be asked to stay (see below on power struggles). A significant number of staffers were brought in by Flynn on the strength of personal connections, and if a new NSA is brought in (we’re hearing that the front-runner is retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, and the third name under consideration is David Petraeus), he will want to bring in his own people. Again, it is hardly unusual for there to be a lot of personnel turnover during an administration transition, but this is an unusual and unnecessary level of turmoil, and the whole world can see it.

The fact that Flynn was clearly a close advisor to Trump indicates that there will be a power vacuum, and there will be several people looking to take advantage of that:

  • Secretary Mattis, whom Flynn opposed for DoD, will be looking to get an ally at the head of the NSC. Mattis and CJCS Dunford, along with the rest of the Joint Chiefs, have considered Russia a serious threat all along, and have been at odds with Flynn and Trump over the close relationship those men appeared to be pursuing with Putin. Mattis and Dunford would probably like to see Harward in the position – Harward served with Mattis at Centcom and the men reportedly get along.
  • But Mattis isn’t the only one who may be looking to gain from Flynn’s loss. Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, will want to shore up his influence at the NSC, while the appointed cabinet heads (including not just Mattis and Tillerson, but Pompeo) will want to contain that influence. He will want either an ideological ally or someone he can control in the National Security Advisor position.
  • Pence, whose name has been curiously absent from every news account I have read about “who is really in control?” and “where are these ideas coming from?”, may also want to try to assert some influence, although it may just be that he is not particularly interested in the national security/foreign policy side of things and plans to focus more on domestic policy. Possibly connected to Pence (or possibly not – hard to tell) is the embattled Reince Priebus-Sean Spicer nexus. They may be hoping for a more standard conservative figure than Flynn was; one who will make their public and Congressional outreach easier. That will be in direct contradiction to anyone Bannon wants.
  • And then there is Jared Kushner, who does not seem to have a particular strategic vision for national security, but who appears to be the conduit through which most foreign contacts reach Trump. I don’t see Kushner being particularly worried, because he *can’t* be forced out, unlike any of the others.

The bottom line is that, when a vacuum opens up, someone wants to fill it. And when there are multiple people with competing interests trying to fill it, there will be a power struggle. Trump has generally run his businesses this way, but appears to be rattled by the public scrutiny and mockery of it as a style of governance.

In general, it will be interesting to see if the new NSA, whoever he is, can change the current dynamic at the top. National Security Advisors traditionally take on one of two possible roles: either they become the president’s advocate to the cabinets and see themselves as being responsible for getting the president’s agenda implemented, or they become the honest broker that all cabinet heads trust to represent their views honestly to the president and to help the president formulate policy. Flynn appeared set to go with the first of those, and we had already been hearing rumblings that the cabinet heads felt like they were being ordered around instead of being part of the policy-making process. Trump appears to want to centralize policy-making in his innermost circle of un-appointed advisors, so he may want another NSA who will reinforce that dynamic. The cabinet heads, on the other hand, will probably prefer someone who can ensure that their views are being heard by the president, even when they’re not invited into the room. Not knowing much about Kellogg or Harward, I can’t make predictions. I think Petraeus would probably be a more independent agent than either of the other two, which would probably please Mattis and Tillerson, but not Trump or Bannon.


Those are the implications I see for the executive-internal issues. What Congress decides to do with this is another whole issue.

Democrats will probably go nuts about the hypocrisy of Congress not going after Flynn hard (it appears that neither the House Oversight Committee nor the House Intelligence Committee is interested in investigating Flynn’s deal-making with the Russians; they want to know why the FBI was recording his calls … despite the fact that the FBI was probably actually recording Ambassador Kislyak’s calls …). Some Republican Senators are calling for an investigation, but the Chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hasn’t decided yet whether he will ask Flynn to *testify* on anything, and many Republican Senators are focusing, like their House colleagues, on the fact that details of the phone calls were leaked, rather than on the fact that the incoming National Security Advisor was apparently making promises about upcoming U.S. policy in contravention of the actual U.S. president’s policy.

Congressional Republicans are in an awkward position, here. Some of them probably do have concerns about Russia’s activities over the last several months or years, but most of them seem to feel that their own interests are better served by protecting Trump and his people than by exposing them (see, e.g., Senator Rand Paul arguing that it’s a waste of time to investigate possible wrongdoing by Republicans). For right now, at least, Trump is still popular with the Republican voting base, and moves that might make him look bad, or might call into question the legitimacy of the election, would not serve the Republicans well in the 2018 mid-term elections. As of right now, they still need him significantly more than he needs them. They need him to pass their laws, and he will have no compunction about holding their complex bills hostage if they don’t play his game. We already know that his machine is capable of making his base believe anything – more than 50% of Trump voters believe that the fictional Bowling Green Massacre demonstrates why we need the travel ban EO. This means that Congressional Republicans must tread lightly around Trump. They may know that he’s alienating the center, but the center isn’t who votes in primaries.

The only thing that might change this eggshells approach is if Trump does something that makes him more of a liability than an asset for Congressional Republicans. If he does something that really alienates the base, then Congressional Republicans will want to try to distance themselves from him … but by then it may be too late to *start* investigating this particular incident.

So, bottom line: I would not expect much strenuous investigation from the Hill. We may see an investigation by the Senate, but I would not expect it to be very aggressive or to involve public testimony from Flynn (unless they want to give the Democrats a chance to alienate the center with angry, hysterical questioning), and I would expect it to avoid incriminating Trump or his inner circle.

Author: pslcohn

PhD, Political Science (IR/Theory), Duke 2007. Research concentrations in civil-military relations, political economy, international law, asymmetric conflict, and foreign policy. All views posted here are my own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Naval War College, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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