As Donald Trump inches closer to the Republican nomination for president, he has faced repeated calls from rival candidates and the press to name the national security and foreign policy experts who advise him and who are helping to shape his views on critical questions that he would confront as commander-in-chief.
Last week, Trump—who has called for banning foreign Muslims from entering the U.S., killing the families of terrorists, and using torture—said in an interview with MSNBC’s Morning Joe that he would identify the members of “the team” he consults “very shortly,” and that “I don’t think there’s any rush… I just don’t want to do it now.”
But in interviews with current and former U.S. defense and intelligence officials, one name continues to surface as a trusted Trump adviser and go-to man on intelligence and national security: Retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, a well-known and outspoken critic of the Obama administration’s campaign against ISIS and its foreign policy.
In Trump, Flynn may have found a kindred spirit—a brash, candid provocateur who seems more interested in upending whole systems than in fine-tuning them. He is also the most prominent name to emerge of those who could help shape the nascent Trump doctrine. And that has made some current and former officials who know Flynn nervous.
They question why the retired general, who has earned criticism for his leadership style but has generally been regarded as a well-intentioned professional, would assist a candidate who has called for military actions that would constitute war crimes.
“I think Flynn and Trump are two peas in a pod,” one former senior U.S. intelligence official who knows Flynn told The Daily Beast. “They have this naïve notion that yelling at people will just solve problems.”
Flynn, who was forced out of his post as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in August 2014 after clashing with other senior officials, has said that “political correctness” has prevented the U.S. from confronting violent extremism, which he sees as a “cancerous idea that exists inside of the Islamic religion.” Flynn has authored a forthcoming book that argues the U.S. government “has concealed the actions of terrorists like [Osama] bin Laden and groups like ISIS, and the role of Iran in the rise of radical Islam…” His co-author, Michael Ledeen, is a neoconservative author and policy analyst who was involved in the Iran-Contra Affair.
Trump, too, has said that sensitivity about religion has kept society from having a fuller debate about the nature of violent extremism, and broad criticism of Muslims is a rhetorical standard in his campaign. Such “outlandishness” in his speeches and pronouncements about U.S. foreign policy, and his willingness “to pull the pin on the hand grenade and see what happens is apparently attractive to Mike [Flynn],” the former official said.
Flynn is not an ordinary adviser. His position as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency gave him top-level access to the inner workings of U.S. military operations and spycraft. A spokesperson for the agency told The Daily Beast that Flynn continues to hold a security clearance and has received briefings from the Defense Department that contain classified information.
Three former U.S. officials said that a trip Flynn took last December to Moscow—where he was filmed sitting at the head table next to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a formal dinner—set off alarms within military and intelligence circles over whether Flynn had notified the U.S. government about his foreign travel, as his security clearance requires.
The Defense Intelligence Agency spokesman said that Flynn had given the proper notices. But a current senior defense official said that word of Flynn’s travel didn’t reach the office of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, and that Pentagon brass were taken by surprise that he didn’t notify the department.
That he would be working with the Trump campaign or pushing for better U.S.-Russian relations, even as the two nations are battling each other on the behalf of proxy forces in Syria, was less surprising, the official said.
“He’s always been a bit of a wild card,” he concluded.
Another former senior U.S. intelligence official who knows Flynn said that he recently praised Trump as a “skilled negotiator” during a meeting of security leaders and experts in Washington. This person said the pair had become so close that, were Trump to win the presidency, he would likely nominate Flynn as the next Director of National Intelligence, the top intelligence official in the government.
Trump has claimed that his business experience in closing real estate and marketing deals has prepared him for the delicate practice of international relations, a comparison that more than 100 Republican experts and former officials rejected in an open letter last week. “His equation of business acumen with foreign policy experience is false. Not all lethal conflicts can be resolved as a real estate deal might, and there is no recourse to bankruptcy court in international affairs,” they wrote.
Flynn declined numerous requests from The Daily Beast to discuss his role with the Trump campaign. “We’ve met informally,” Flynn said of Trump in a text message in January, without elaborating. More recently, Flynn hung up on a Daily Beast reporter who asked him to explain his relationship with Trump and whether Flynn had gone to Moscow on the candidate’s behalf.
Flynn subsequently declined to respond to a detailed list of written questions sent via email. “You have it all wrong,” he wrote, but refused to specify what information was incorrect or to provide any information on his meetings with Trump and whether Flynn supports the candidate’s more controversial positions. “If you want to write a totally untrue story, that is your prerogative. no further comment [sic],” Flynn wrote.
A spokesperson for the Trump campaign, Hope Hicks, didn’t respond to several requests for comment about Flynn’s role.
While in Moscow, on Dec. 10, Flynn also appeared on stage with a correspondent for the Kremlin-linked television network, RT, who conducted a lengthy interview about U.S. policy towards ISIS and why Flynn thought the U.S. and Russia should be working together to fight the extremist group in Iraq and Syria. Russia has also attacked rebels there trying to overthrow the dictator Bashar al-Assad.
The Obama administration has called Russia an impediment to peace in the region for its support of Assad and has tried to broker peace talks aimed at ending a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.
Flynn said he “definitely disagree[d]” with the administration’s current policy of viewing Russia as unhelpful in the fight against ISIS.
“I’m speaking really as a private citizen,” Flynn said. “The United States can’t sit there and say, ‘Russia, you’re bad.’” Flynn said the two countries were “in a marriage, whether we like it or not,” and that Moscow and Washington should “stop acting like two bullies in a playground” and “quit acting immature with each other.”
Flynn also praised what he described as Russia’s contributions to international stability. “Europe would not be the Europe that it is today, thriving, had it not been for Russia and the United States working together 75 years ago,” Flynn said, an apparent reference to the victory over Nazi Germany by the U.S. and the Soviet Union in World War II. Flynn didn’t mention the ensuing partitioning of Europe nor a generations-long Cold War that put the Americans and the Soviets on the opposite sides of an ideological divide and led to a nuclear arms race.
“This idea of us not being able to work together is a misnomer,” Flynn said.
The timing of Flynn’s visit was notable. Seven days after his remarks, Putin praised Trump as “an outstanding and talented personality.”
“He is a bright and talented person without any doubt,” Putin said during an annual news conference, according to the news agency Tass. Referring to Trump as the leading candidate to replace Barack Obama, Putin said, “He says he will want to reach another, deeper, level of relations [with Russia]. What else can we do but to welcome it?”
Trump returned Putin’s generous remarks.
“It is always a great honor to be so nicely complimented by a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond,” Trump said in a statement released by his spokesperson, Hicks. “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
Russian officials in Moscow didn’t answer calls from The Daily Beast requesting comment on Flynn’s trip. The Russian Embassy spokesman in Washington, D.C., said Tuesday that they were aware of Flynn’s trip but considered it a “private visit” and had no further details.
There are defenders of Flynn within the Pentagon. While some believe the former general has flouted the understood rule that even retired commanders shouldn’t veer too far from stated U.S. foreign policy, particularly while the U.S. is engaged in combat, others defended his right to speak out.
“He’s developing business opportunities,” one defense official who has worked with Flynn explained to The Daily Beast. “He has been engaged with a number of campaigns, and he is a pretty straight shooter.”
Flynn has said that Trump is just one candidate with whom he has spoken, though he hasn’t identified the others. An aide to Sen. Ted Cruz told The Daily Beast that he “frequently” discusses national security issues with Flynn. Cruz’s campaign website includes a statement from Flynn commending the senator for the “new energy and ideas” that he would bring to the Defense Department.
A spokesperson for Sen. Marco Rubio said Flynn doesn’t advise the campaign.
Flynn has called on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to withdraw from the Democratic nomination contest while the FBI investigates her use of a private email server.
Others noted that Flynn has done nothing to threaten his access to classified information, despite the fact that some officials didn’t realize he was traveling abroad.
“As long as you are not caught with a dead girl or a live boy, you’ll keep your clearance,” said one official familiar with how the Pentagon views post-retirement activity.
Flynn has also echoed positions similar to Trump’s on Islam and religious-inspired violence in recent weeks, as the candidate has won a string of caucus and primary contests and become the Republican frontrunner.
“Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” read a tweet from Flynn’s account on Feb. 26, encouraging others to share the message. It linked to a video that purported to reveal “the basics of Islam,” and argued that “the term Islamophobia is an oxymoron, since having a phobia means having an irrational fear. Fearing Islam, which wants 80 percent of humanity enslaved or exterminated, is totally rational…”
On Feb. 29, Flynn’s account praised Brigitte Gabriel, the founder of Act for America, an advocacy group dedicated to “fighting Radical Islam’s attempts to infiltrate and take over the West.” The tweet called her “an incredibly courageous person.”
Gabriel, who describes herself as “one of the leading national security experts in the world,” has said she advises political and business leaders.
Flynn’s tweet admiring Gabriel was a retweet of an earlier message from her own account—a photograph of Gabriel and Trump standing in his opulent Florida estate.
“Here in Mar-A-Lago giving a national security briefing & look who I bumped into,” it said.
—with additional reporting from Kimberly Dozier, Tim Mak, and Anna Nemstova.