“Lock her up, that's right. Lock her up,” retired General Michael Flynn exclaimed, along with thousands of other Republicans denouncing Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential candidate, in response to his speech at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July. That confident, fiery Flynn is a different man from who the world saw on Tuesday.
After only three weeks on the job working National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, the former military spy chief and ardent Trump loyalist, resigned in disgrace amid allegations he had lied to his bosses about conversations he had had with Russia’s ambassador in the days after the election. Wiretaps reportedly revealed he discussed removing the sanctions against Russia put in place by the Obama administration. He blamed the transition.
“Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the vice president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador,” he wrote. “I have sincerely apologised to the president and the vice president, and they have accepted my apology.”
The downfall of Flynn provoked joy, condemnation and confusion. The resignation of a top foreign policy adviser is unusual for a US presidency, especially less than a month into the first term. But the world is learning that little about the Trump presidency is normal, and the only thing to expect is the unexpected, as politics in the United States becomes even more bitter and volatile.
The White House attempted to dismiss Flynn’s resignation as a result of the controversy itself, and not of any specific wrongdoing.
"By night's end, Mike Flynn had decided it was best to resign. He knew he'd become a lightning rod, and he made that decision," Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway told the Today Show on Tuesday. "As time wore on, obviously the situation became unsustainable. We're moving on."
Muslim rights groups in the US hailed his departure as a win against bigotry they see as rampant in the executive branch. Flynn has repeatedly expressed Islamophobic views, referring to the religion as a “cancer” and saying that it was “rational” to fear Muslims.
"We welcome Michael Flynn's resignation and hope it is followed by that of all the other anti-Muslim bigots currently formulating domestic and international policies in the White House, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Sebastian and Katharine Gorka," said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations. "Our nation is best served by those who base their policy recommendations on facts, not fear."
Russian officials, meanwhile, said that Flynn’s exit represented what they view as Russophobia in Washington.
On Tuesday, Russia Today (RT) ran an interview with a far-right Twitter personality, Mike Cernovich, an American who slammed Flynn’s resignation as a “US establishment coup.” Cernovich went so far as to blame the CIA for the former general’s undoing. Kremlin-funded RT is mixed up in the affair too, since Flynn was a regular commentator on the channel and visited Russia to celebrate an anniversary for the network, which has faced criticism for promotion of views favourable to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The question I have right now: is the CIA leaking information, have they been spying on Trump? What have they been doing? Who is committing these felonies? Who are breaching our nation secrets and leaking it to the media? I think that is a far bigger story and a far bigger scandal,” Cernovich told RT.
He went on to call Flynn’s resignation an attempt by the old guard to retake power from Trump and his far-right cadre in the White House.
“The elite members of the Republican Party are trying to take over, they are very upset that Trump won, they didn’t want Trump to win. They tried to sabotage him the entire campaign. So, what they are doing now is the next best thing: they couldn’t stop him from becoming president, so now they have a coup,” he added.
In the Middle East, Flynn’s resignation comes as a shock, too, for countries like Egypt and Syria that had expected him to act as a fierce ally against their own local enemies. Turkey sits in a similar spot after the shake-up.
Flynn’s departure has dulled hopes that the Trump administration will concede to Ankara’s demand that the US extradite Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Muslim cleric, a permanent resident of the US, whom the Turkish government accuses of plotting the failed July 15 coup attempt that took the lives of 260. In November, Flynn had signalled support for extraditing Gulen, unlike the Obama administration, which had resisted, saying Turkey had not provided sufficient evidence for extraditing him.
Flynn disagreed, comparing Gulen to Osama bin Laden.
“We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognise Turkey as a priority. We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective,” he wrote in The Hill, a Washington DC-based political website, last August.
“The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gulen, who is running a scam. We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are,” Flynn wrote.
But Flynn in November was very different from Flynn in July. On the night of the doomed putsch, he had expressed support for the coup itself as a victory against political Islam, which he said is prevailing under Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. A video of the speech is available on YouTube.
“Probably most of you don’t know, but there’s an ongoing coup going on in Turkey right now,” Flynn asserted at a meeting of ACT for America, a conservative foreign policy advocacy group. He warned that Turkey under Erdogan has begun "to move toward Islamism."
As Flynn spoke during the first hours of the attempted coup, the former general assumed the people behind it were Turkish secularists.
“I’m going to be very fascinated to see what happens. If the military succeeds, one of the things that came out of the military tonight ... One of the things the military immediately said, ‘We recognise our responsibilities with NATO, we recognise our responsibilities with the United Nations, we want to make sure that the world knows, we are, we want to be seen as a secular nation.’ This is the military.”
The audience applauded when he referred to the idea of Turkey as a secular nation.
“That is worth clapping for,” Flynn said.
Months later, after Trump’s win, Flynn would sound a very different tune on the coup.
A twist in Moscow-Washington relations
The reset in US-Turkey relations that Flynn promised is not the only aspect of Trump's foreign policy that appears unlikely in the wake of his resignation. Improving relations between the US and Russia are also in jeopardy.
On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated what UN Ambassador Nikki Haley had said on February 2, declaring that Russia should return Crimea to Ukraine. Russia invaded the peninsula in 2014, and a referendum there solidified Moscow's control over the region.
Spicer's statement indicated the kind of paradox the US now finds itself in over relations with Russia over Ukraine, where the conflict between pro-Russia separatists and forces loyal to Kiev has intensified since Trump took office.
"President Trump has made it very clear that he expects the Russian government to deescalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea. At the same time, he fully expects to and wants to be able to get along with Russia, unlike previous administrations, so that we can solve many problems together facing the world, such as the threat of ISIS and terrorism," Spicer told reporters on Tuesday.
But Russia's foreign ministry pushed back at Spicer on Wednesday.
“We don’t return our territories. Crimea is a territory of the Russian Federation,” said, Maria Zakharova, a ministry spokesperson, according to RT.
Tensions over Russia's involvement in the White House don't appear to be finished with the Flynn affair. On Wednesday, The New York Times published a story saying that the FBI was investigating other Trump allies over their ties to Russian intelligence, including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort.
Trump, for his part, has tweeted less concern over Flynn's conduct but rather the leaks that let the press know about it.
The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington? Will these leaks be happening as I deal on N.Korea etc?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 14, 2017
Whether the investigations will result in a purge of more administration officials friendly to the Kremlin remains to be seen, and that's what some in Washington would like to see.