Important if you’re concerned with the question of who’ll be calling the shots on foreign policy in the administration, which you should be. Will it be Mattis, Tillerson, Pompeo and the other department heads in the cabinet? Or will it be Mike Flynn, Trump’s national security advisor and one of his closest aides since the campaign last year? The national security advisor already functions as a sort of “intelligence czar” for the president. The wrinkle with Flynn is that he allegedly wants to extend that influence down into the departments themselves by leaning on Trump’s nominees to appoint people whom he prefers as their deputies. Go figure that James Mattis might not want to be surrounded with people at Defense who are more loyal to Flynn than to him.
And so Trump and his triumvirate of top aides — Bannon, Priebus, and Kushner — are faced with a dilemma. Do they side with their longtime ally Flynn or do they side with greater autonomy for their new department heads? According to the WSJ, they’re leaning towards the latter:
His pick for national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, has long clashed with the intelligence-community establishment over the U.S. fight against global terrorism, and is now butting heads with members of Mr. Trump’s team, including Rex Tillerson, Mr. Trump’s pick for secretary of state, Gen. Mattis and Mr. Pompeo…
Two of Mr. Trump’s top advisers—his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon, his chief strategist and senior counselor—have met with the trio to soothe concerns about Mr. Flynn, said two people with knowledge of the talks.
“He’s pushing a lot of people” at State and Defense, one of the people said about Mr. Flynn. “His influence he’s trying to amass will get rolled back the moment [cabinet secretaries] get confirmed.”
Concerns about Mr. Flynn led to a decision from Mr. Trump’s team to move some responsibilities for overseeing counterterrorism and cybersecurity away from Mr. Flynn’s office, the people said. Those changes were announced late last month when Mr. Trump named Thomas Bossert as assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism. He will report directly to the president instead of to Mr. Flynn.
WaPo ran a noteworthy piece a few weeks ago about Mattis’s growing frustration with the transition team on personnel decisions, especially regarding who’ll take Flynn’s old job as undersecretary of defense for intelligence, a.k.a. DIA. Flynn wasn’t directly accused of being Mattis’s chief antagonist on that, but the piece did slyly note that “The personnel dispute could be the first sign of tension between Mattis and Flynn.” As a retired general himself with his roots in military intelligence, it stands to reason that the new national security advisor would be keenly interested in who the new man at DIA is. Bear all of that in mind in considering the new WSJ piece.
The bit about Bossert reporting directly to Trump is especially noteworthy, as it suggests they’ve already built an intel pipeline around Flynn. That’s encouraging if you’re a Trump skeptic, as Flynn is one of the two people in the administration who give Trump critics the most agita. The other is Bannon, but Bannon doesn’t hold an operational office like Flynn does and is “balanced,” at least in theory, by Priebus and Kushner. Flynn, who holds a position of real power, is suspect because of his bromance with Russia, his weird habit of retweeting conspiracy theories uncritically, and his managerial style at DIA. The fact that Trump appointed quality people like Mattis and Pompeo who aren’t longtime Trump loyalists and who disagree with him publicly on key policy areas like Russia is one of the best things he’s done since the election, as it suggests there’ll be independent thinking around the table in the war room. But all of that is compromised if Mattis and Pompeo are being hemmed in by deputies foisted on them by Flynn. If the Journal story is true, it’s something even anti-Trumpers can celebrate on Inauguration Day.
Update: A friend who works in the Pentagon corrects me on a small error: The head of DIA, Flynn’s old position, isn’t the undersecretary of defense for intelligence himself but rather reports to that officer, who in turn reports to Mattis. The fact that DIA is a tremendously important position remains true, of course.