Barack Obama warned his successor against hiring Michael Flynn. It was Nov. 10, 2016, just two days after Donald Trump upset Hillary Clinton to become the 45th president of the United States. Trump told aide Hope Hicks that he was bewildered by the president’s warning. Of all the important things Obama could have discussed with him, the outgoing commander in chief wanted to talk about Michael Flynn.
The question of why Obama was so focused on Flynn is especially revealing now. The Department of Justice recently filed to withdraw charges against the retired three-star general for making false statements to the FBI in a Jan. 24, 2017, interview regarding a phone call with a Russian diplomat. The circumstances surrounding the call and subsequent FBI interview have given rise to a vast conspiracy theory that was weaponized to imprison a decorated war hero and a strategic thinker whose battlefield innovations saved countless American lives. There is no evidence that Flynn “colluded” with Russia, and the evidence that Flynn did not make false statements to the FBI has been buried by the bureau, including current Director Christopher Wray.
So if the Obama administration wasn’t alarmed by Flynn’s nonexistent ties to Russia, why was he Obama’s No. 1 target? Why were officials from the previous administration intercepting his phone calls with the Russian ambassador?
The answer is that Obama saw Flynn as a signal threat to his legacy, which was rooted in his July 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Flynn had said long before he signed on with the Trump campaign that it was a catastrophe to realign American interests with those of a terror state. And now that the candidate he’d advised was the new president-elect, Flynn was in a position to help undo the deal. To stop Flynn, the outgoing White House ran the same offense it used to sell the Iran deal—they smeared Flynn through the press as an agent of a foreign power, spied on him, and leaked classified intercepts of his conversations to reliable echo chamber allies.
In March 2017, after seeing evidence of the Obama administration’s surveillance of Trump associates, Congressman Devin Nunes said it had nothing to do with Russia or the FBI’s ongoing Russia investigation, or similar Russia probes conducted by congressional committees. Nunes’ contention was difficult to make sense of at the time. Wasn’t everything about Russia and whether or not there was, as Congressman Adam Schiff said, more than circumstantial evidence of collusion?
In fact, as Trump prepared to take office after his 2016 upset victory, the Obama White House was focused on the Middle East. “Russia collusion” was the narrative that Hillary Clinton operatives seeded in the media and fed to the FBI to obtain a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. After the election, the Obama team took it over and used it to hobble the incoming administration.
That Obama has publicly criticized the Justice Department’s decision to withdraw its case against the retired general shows how personal the anti-Flynn campaign still is for the former president. In leaking his supposedly off-hand comments to Michael Isikoff, a journalist whose work was central in pushing the Trump-Russia collusion conspiracy theory, Obama was effectively taking credit for pushing the larger anti-Trump operation that grew out of the anti-Flynn campaign. While the Russia collusion story was a handy instrument for many to advance all manner of personal and political interests, for Obama the purpose of Russiagate was simple and direct: to protect the Iran deal, and secure his legacy.
Obama and his foreign policy team were hardly the only people in Washington who had their knives out for Michael Flynn. Nearly everyone did, especially the FBI. As former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s spy service, and a career intelligence officer, Flynn knew how and where to find the documentary evidence of the FBI’s illegal spying operation buried in the agency’s classified files—and the FBI had reason to be terrified of the new president’s anger.
The United States Intelligence Community (USIC) as a whole was against the former spy chief, who was promising to conduct a Beltway-wide audit that would force each of the agencies to justify their missions. Flynn told friends and colleagues he was going to make the entire senior intelligence service hand in their resignations and then detail why their work was vital to national security. Flynn knew the USIC well enough to know that thousands of higher-level bureaucrats wouldn’t make the cut.
Flynn had enemies at the very top of the intelligence bureaucracy. In 2014, he’d been fired as DIA head. Under oath in February of that year, he told the truth to a Senate committee—ISIS was not, as the president had said, a “JV team.” They were a serious threat to American citizens and interests and were getting stronger. Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers then summoned Flynn to the Pentagon and told him he was done.
“Flynn’s warnings that extremists were regrouping and on the rise were inconvenient to an administration that didn’t want to hear any bad news,” says former DIA analyst Oubai Shahbandar. “Flynn’s prophetic warnings would play out exactly as he’d warned shortly after he was fired.”
Flynn’s firing appeared to be an end to one of the most remarkable careers in recent American intelligence history. He made his name during the Bush administration’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where soldiers in the field desperately needed intelligence, often collected by other combat units. But there was a clog in the pipeline—the Beltway’s intelligence bureaucracy, which had a stranglehold over the distribution of intelligence.
Flynn described the problem in a 2010 article titled “Fixing Intel: A Blueprint for Making Intelligence Relevant in Afghanistan,” co-written with current Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger. “Moving up through levels of hierarchy,” they wrote, “is normally a journey into greater degrees of cluelessness.” Their solution was to cut Washington out of the process: Americans in uniform in Iraq and Afghanistan needed that information to accomplish their mission.
“What made Flynn revolutionary is that he got people out in the field,” says Shahbandar, who served in Iraq under Flynn in 2007-08 and in Afghanistan in 2010-11. “It wasn’t just enough to have intelligence, you needed to understand where it was coming from and what it meant. For instance, if you thought that insurgents were going to take over a village, the first people who would know what was going would be the villagers. So Flynn made sure we knew the environment, the culture, the people.”
Influential senior officers like Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal credited Flynn for collecting the intelligence that helped defeat al-Qaida in Iraq in 2007. In 2012, he was named DIA chief. The next year he secured access for a team of DIA analysts to scour through the documents that had been captured during the 2011 operation to kill Osama bin Laden.
“The bin Laden database was unorganized,” says a former senior DIA official. “There had been very little work on it since it was first captured. The CIA had done machine word searches to identify immediate threats, but they didn’t study it for future trends or strategic insight.” Flynn arranged for a team from United States Central Command, based in Tampa, Florida, to come up to Washington. The subject of their investigation was a potentially sensitive one. “We were looking for ties between al-Qaida and Iran,” says Michael Pregent, a former Army intelligence officer who was working on the bin Laden documents as a contractor. “We’re arguing with everyone—NSA, whoever else—telling them what we wanted and they kept saying ‘there’s nothing there, we already went through it.’ The CIA and others were looking for immediate threats. We said ‘we’re DIA, we’re all-source analysts and we want everything to get a full picture.’”
Just as the CENTCOM team was preparing for their trip to Northern Virginia, they were shut down. “Everything was set,” says Pregent. “we had our hotel reservations, a team of translators, and access to all of the drives at the National Media Exploitation Center. Then I get a call in the middle of one of the NCAA basketball tournament games from the guy who was running our team. He said that [CIA Director John] Brennan and [National Security Adviser Susan] Rice pulled the plug.”
The administration was, it appears, clearing space for Obama to implement his big foreign policy idea—the Iran nuclear deal. Another aide, Ben Rhodes, had said in 2013 that the Iran Deal was the White House’s key second-term initiative. Evidence that Tehran was coordinating with a terror group that had slaughtered thousands in Manhattan and at the Pentagon would make it harder to convince American lawmakers of the wisdom in legitimizing Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
What was the information about al-Qaida’s ties to Iran that Flynn wanted his CENTCOM team to get out? According to published news reports, the bin Laden database included “letters about Iran’s role, influence, and acknowledgment of enabling al-Qaida operatives to pass through Iran as long as al-Qaida did its dirty work against the Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.” One of those letters showed that “Al-Qaeda was working on chemical and biological weapons in Iran.”
After decades of anti-Iran campaigning, Republicans were expected to oppose Obama’s deal, but didn’t have the numbers to stop it in the Senate. What concerned the White House therefore was their own party. Senior Democrats on Capitol Hill were uneasy about the deal, as were large numbers of Jewish voters—more than half of whom identify as Democrats.
Jewish organizations offered two major objections to the deal: First, the outlines of Obama’s nuclear deal suggested that it might legalize a bomb pointed at the Jewish state. Second, in striking an agreement with Iran, the White House might normalize relations with a regime that embodies anti-Semitism.
In return, Obama confronted Iran Deal skeptics in his own party with a hard choice—either support the deal, or you’re out. There would be no room in the Democratic Party for principled disagreement over the keystone of Obama’s foreign policy legacy. Opponents were portrayed in harsh, uncompromising terms: They had been bought off, or were warmongers, or Israel-firsters.
In a meeting of Senate Democrats in early 2015, Obama had his eye on New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez when he spoke of pressures “from donors and others” to reject the deal. Menendez was offended. He said he’d “worked for more than 20 years to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions and had always been focused on the long-term implications.”
The way that Obama framed it, it was only the money laid out against the initiative by lobbyists and donors that kept Americans from seeing how excellent his deal truly was. “If people are engaged, eventually the political system responds,” Obama told Jon Stewart. “Despite the money, despite the lobbyists, it still responds.”
Obama kept talking about money, donors, and lobbyists as if a secret cabal was tossing bags of dark foreign cash around Washington. What he was referring to was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC)—an American organization run by American Jews to promote America’s alliance with its most important Middle East ally.
AIPAC’s leadership trusted Obama to do the right thing. They described him as a great friend of Israel and assured themselves he wouldn’t put the Jewish state in danger by giving the bomb to a regime that regularly called for its destruction. But Obama didn’t trust AIPAC or the capacity of the American people to recognize the excellence of the Iran deal, which is why he kept the deal and its contents hidden from public view for as long as possible.
In 2012, the administration began secret negotiations with Iran. At the same time, the administration called off a multi-agency task force targeting the billion-dollar criminal enterprise run by Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah. The administration told Congress that the nuclear deal would not grant Iran access to the U.S. financial system, but a 2018 Senate report showed how the Obama White House lied to the public and was secretly trying to grant Iran that access. The Obama administration had misled Congress about secret deals it made regarding verification procedures, and then secretly shipped $1.7 billion in cash for Iran to distribute to its terror proxies.
The administration’s promise that the deal would prevent Iran from ever getting a bomb was validated by their communications infrastructure: The messaging campaign brought together friendly journalists, newly minted arms-control experts, social media stars, and progressive advocacy groups like the regime-friendly National Iranian American Council (NIAC). As Obama’s top national security communications lieutenant Ben Rhodes told The New York Times: “They were saying things that validated what we had given them to say.”
One strategy employed by Rhodes’ echo chamber assets was to engage critics in esoteric debates over details of the Iran deal. For instance, how many centrifuges would Iranian reactors be allowed to spin? Had Iran’s supreme leader declared a genuine fatwa against nuclear weapons? Was this or that nuclear site a military facility?
Among the handful of honest reporters covering the deal, most didn’t have enough information, time, or energy to continue fighting a wall of static noise. And that was the point of Obama’s media campaign—to drown out, smear, and shut down opponents and even skeptics. Thus, echo chamber allies purposefully obscured the core issue. The nature of the agreement was made plain in its “sunset clauses.” The fact that parts of the deal restricting Iran’s activities were due to expire beginning in 2020 until all restrictions were gone and the regime’s nuclear program was legal, showed that it was a phony deal. Obama was simply bribing the Iranians with hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief and hundreds of billions more in investment to refrain from building a bomb until he was safely gone from the White House, when the Iranian bomb would become someone else’s problem. The Obama team thought that even the Israelis wouldn’t dream of touching Iran’s nuclear program so long as Washington vouchsafed the deal. They called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “chickenshit.”
If Obama was just kicking the can down the road, why did he expend so much effort to get the deal? How was it central to his legacy if it was never actually intended to stop Iran from getting the bomb? Because it was his instrument to secure an even more ambitious objective—to reorder the strategic architecture of the Middle East.
Obama did not hide his larger goal. He told a biographer, New Yorker editor David Remnick, that he was establishing a geopolitical equilibrium “between Sunni, or predominantly Sunni, Gulf states and Iran.” According to The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, another writer Obama used as a public messaging instrument, realignment was a “great strategic opportunity” for a “a new regional framework that accommodates the security needs of Iranians, Saudis, Israelis, Russians and Americans.”
The catch to Obama’s newly inclusive “balancing” framework was that upgrading relations with Iran would necessarily come at the expense of traditional partners targeted by Iran—like Saudi Arabia and, most importantly, Israel. Obama never said that part out loud, but the logic isn’t hard to follow: Elevating your enemy to the same level as your ally means that your enemy is no longer your enemy, and your ally is no longer your ally.
Obama demonstrated to Jerusalem the gravity of his intentions every time an administration official leaked reports of Israeli raids on Hezbollah and other Iranian allies in Syria and Lebanon. That put the Israelis on the defensive, and also showed the Iranians that Obama could and would bring Israel to heel. Therefore, Tehran should trust him.
“Obama wants this as the centerpiece of his legacy,” an American diplomat told the press in Vienna where Secretary of State John Kerry and his team came to terms with the Islamic Republic. “He sees himself as a transformative president in the Reagan mold,” said a former Obama adviser, “who leaves his stamp on America and the world for decades to come.”
For all of Obama’s talk of money and lobbies, he was himself creating a large international constituency for the deal. Sanctions on Iran had kept foreign companies out of the country for decades, but the promise of new markets for major industries, like energy and automotive, had European and Asian industry chomping at the bit. The American president not only promised to relieve sanctions, but also to help drum up business by assuring the world that it was safe to invest in Iran. John Kerry was keen to turn the State Department into Iran’s Chamber of Commerce.
Obama’s talk of the pro-Israel lobby only got louder as his negotiators came closer to striking the deal. He was talking about the Jews, and to them. If they didn’t back the deal, the sewers would spill over with traditional anti-Semitic conceits about Jewish money and influence, dual loyalties, Jews leveraging their home country on behalf of their co-religionists, and fomenting war. This wasn’t a fringe White nationalist figure, but a popular two-term Democrat. John Kerry said it outright: If Congress failed to pass the deal, it would put Israel at risk of being “more isolated and more blamed.” There was no alternative to the deal, said Kerry, except war.
Jewish community leaders complained about how the debate over the deal was being framed. “If you are a critic of the deal, you’re for war,” a senior official at a pro-Israel organization told me at the time. “The implication is that if it looks like the Jewish community is responsible for Congress voting down the deal, it will look like the Jewish community is leading us off to another war in the Middle East.”
Nonetheless, Obama kept hammering away at his chosen messaging. In a speech at American University he argued there are only two choices: The Iran Deal or war. The one government that did not think this is “such a strong deal” was Israel.
If the smear campaign targeting Iran Deal opponents as rich, dual-loyalist, right-wing warmongers was the public face of Obama’s push for the deal, there was an even less savory component hidden within the advanced technology of the U.S. Intelligence Community: The administration was spying on its domestic opponents, American legislators, and pro-Israel activists. Noah Pollak—formerly head of the Emergency Committee for Israel, a nonprofit organization that opposed the nuclear agreement with Iran—says, “I was warned that my conversations with senior Israeli officials were possibly being monitored.”
Speaking to me for my 2019 book The Plot Against the President, Pollak said that “the administration did things that seemed incontrovertibly to be responses to information gathered by listening to those conversations.” He continued: “At first we thought these were coincidences and we were being paranoid. Surely none of us are that important. Eventually it simply became our working assumption that we were being spied on via the Israeli officials we were in contact with.”
A 2015 Wall Street Journal story provided details of the administration’s domestic espionage operation. “The National Security Agency’s targeting of Israeli leaders and officials also swept up the contents of some of their private conversations with U.S. lawmakers and American-Jewish groups,” explained writers Adam Entous and Danny Yadron. “That raised fears—an ‘Oh-s— moment,’ one senior U.S. official said—that the executive branch would be accused of spying on Congress.”
The names of Americans are minimized in transcripts of intercepted foreign communications to protect their privacy. For instance, an American swept up in an intercept might be referred to as a “U.S. Person.” It is not illegal or even necessarily improper for U.S. officials to deminimize, or “unmask,” their identities and find out who “U.S. Person” is, provided there are genuine national security reasons for doing so.
The story the Journal tells is evidence Obama officials knew what they were doing was wrong. In the account shaped by the Obama team, responsibility fell on the shoulders of the National Security Agency, responsible for the bulk of America’s signals intelligence. White House officials “let the NSA decide what to share and what to withhold,” according to the Journal story. “We didn’t say, ‘do it,’” a senior U.S. official said. “We didn’t say, ‘don’t do it.’”
Any use of NSA intercepts to target Jewish organizations and anti-Iran Deal legislators would not be an innocent mistake. Obama aides would know they were abusing surveillance programs ostensibly pointed at Israeli officials if they used them to know which US lawmakers and pro-Israel activists were planning to oppose the deal, what they were saying, and who they were talking to. Indeed, it appears that to get in front of the possibility that their domestic spying operation would be exposed, Obama officials leaked it to friendly reporters in order to shape the story to their advantage: OK, yes, we heard, but only by accident. And in any case, it was the NSA that passed it on to us.
In June 2015, a month before the deal was struck in Vienna, Michael Flynn was on Capitol Hill testifying about Iran and the deeply flawed deal on the table. He described Iran’s destabilizing actions throughout the region, how the regime killed American troops in Iraq and later Afghanistan. He warned about Iran’s ties to North Korea, China, and Russia. Flynn emphasized that Iran’s “stated desire to destroy Israel is very real.” He said Obama’s Iran policy was one of “willful ignorance.”
As the 2016 election cycle approached, a number of Republican candidates solicited his advice—including Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, and Ted Cruz. In a sense, the retired general chose Trump as much as Trump chose him. At the time, the candidate’s understanding of what he called “the swamp”—a confederation of bureaucrats, elected officials, consultants, and contractors enriching themselves at the expense of the American taxpayer, was mostly theoretical. From Trump Tower in New York City more than 200 miles away, Washington sure looked wasteful. But Flynn had detailed knowledge of how the Beltway worked.
The two hit it off and Flynn traveled with the candidate regularly. He was vetted for the vice presidency, but Trump decided instead on Mike Pence, a congressman from Indiana who could help win both the evangelical and the Midwestern vote. Still, outside of Trump’s own family, Flynn was his closest adviser. The foreign policy initiatives he articulated were the president-elect’s and when he spoke to foreign officials, he was speaking for Trump.
Flynn not only made it clear that he wanted to undo the Iran Deal, he also broadcast his determination to find the documents detailing the secret deals between Obama and Iran, and to publicize them. With Flynn on the march, the outgoing administration was keen to shield the JCPOA. Obama diplomats consulted with their European counterparts and gave the clerical regime more sanctions relief, even after the Senate agreed with a 99 to 0 vote to renew the Iran Sanctions Act. Kerry called his Iranian counterpart to tell him not to worry.
Notably, Russia weighed in on the Obama team’s side. It would be “unforgivable,” according to the Russian Foreign Ministry, if the incoming Trump administration forfeited the JCPOA. The White House agreed to let Russia export more than 100 tons of uranium to Iran—enough to make more than 10 bombs, according to some estimates. “The point was to complicate any effort to tear up the deal,” says a senior U.S. official involved in the fight over the JCPOA. “It gave Iran an insurance policy against Trump.”
By early December 2016, only weeks after Trump’s surprise election, the anti-Flynn campaign was well underway. A December 3, 2016, New York Times article portrayed Flynn as a martinet who brooked no disagreement, and insisted his subordinates corroborate the intelligence assessments he sought. In his worldview, wrote the Times, “America was in a world war against Islamist militants allied with Russia, Cuba, and North Korea.” The piece carried the bylines of Matthew Rosenberg, Mark Mazzetti, and Eric Schmitt, with additional reporting by Adam Goldman and Michael S. Schmidt—reporters who would share in the Times’ 2018 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting on the Russiagate conspiracy theory.
Parts of the Times story were then recycled in a joint statement signed by progressive advocacy groups allied with the Obama White House in the Iran deal fight, like MoveOn.org and J Street, demanding Trump withdraw his appointment of Flynn. Among other concerns, the statement cited Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkish interests and, incongruously, his ostensibly negative views on Muslims, as expressed in his book—as well as his position on Iran.
A one-time USIC lawyer and editor at the national security bureaucracy blog Lawfare, who was destined to become a leading Russiagate conspiracy theorist, highlighted sections from Flynn’s book on social media. “Shocking,” tweeted Susan Hennessey. It had only been a year and a half since the Obama team had steamrolled congress to win the JCPOA and now their communications infrastructure had swung into action again to protect the Iran Deal from the Trump White House.
It was in this early December 2016 period when the Iran deal spying and media operation merged into Russiagate. The structure of the two operations was identical—only some of the variables had changed. Opponents were no longer tagged as Israel-firsters, now they were Putin assets. The message, however, was the same. Opponents are not simply wrongheaded, or mistaken, or even dumb—rather, they are disloyal; agents of a foreign power.
Clandestine spying targeting Flynn began no later than Dec. 2. That day, DNI James Clapper and U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power unmasked Flynn’s name from a classified U.S. intercept of communications between Russian officials. It seems the Obama officials were interested in a Trump Tower meeting Flynn and Jared Kushner held with Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The envoy then reported his meeting to Moscow, communications that U.S. officials appear to have leaked to Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporters Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Adam Entous, who had moved over from The Wall Street Journal.
Leaking information from classified intercepts is a felony. Concerned U.S. officials’ use of the press to illuminate government crimes and abuses is a keystone of the American political process. However, the many times that Flynn’s name was illegally leaked from intercepts during the transition period and the first several weeks of the new administration shows that the classified information passed to journalists was not whistleblowing but was instead an aspect of the political surveillance operation targeting the Trump team.
According to a recently declassified document, there were 39 Obama officials who unmasked Flynn’s identity a total of 53 times. Power led the list with seven unmaskings of Flynn—a small part of her sum total of more than 330 unmaskings between 2015-16, making her, according to former Congressman Trey Gowdy, the “largest unmasker of U.S. persons in our history.”
Power was one of 30 Obama officials who unmasked Flynn between Dec. 14-16. The list includes Clapper, Brennan, FBI Director James Comey and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, as well as six other Treasury officials including Patrick Conlon, the director of the Office of Intelligence and Analysis—Treasury’s intelligence shop. It appears they were interested in a Dec. 15 meeting in which Flynn, Kushner, and Steve Bannon hosted the crown prince of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.
Obama’s former National Security Adviser Susan Rice also unmasked Flynn for this meeting, though she’s not on the declassified Flynn unmasking list. She said that she was irked Emirati leadership had come to the United States without notifying the Obama White House. Rice’s description of her emotional state may well be accurate, though it doesn’t explain why she requested the identities of presidential transition officials.
But it’s not hard to figure out why she and 30 other Obama officials wanted to know about that meeting. Spying on the Trump team’s conversations with Arab officials would tell them how the next administration’s Middle East policies would affect Obama’s, especially the JCPOA. Seven Treasury officials spying on the same meeting suggests they wanted to know about Trump’s plans for Iran sanctions. Sure, John Kerry told the Iranians not to worry about sanctions, but what could the Obama team do to counter Trump if he was planning to restore them?
On Dec. 22, Flynn spoke with Russian Ambassador Kislyak about the vote scheduled to take place at the United Nations the next day. The Obama team had coaxed Egypt into introducing U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, holding that Israel was occupying the territories it had taken in the June 1967 war. Israel, according to 2334, was in “flagrant violation” of international law. Under the terms of the resolution, even the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was an illegal Israeli settlement.
President-elect Trump got Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the phone on Dec. 22 and convinced him to withdraw the proposal. But the transition team knew someone else would sponsor the resolution. Flynn was speaking with foreign officials from Israel, Egypt, and Senegal—which at the time held one of the rotating positions on the security council. Flynn later told the FBI that he knew the math and at least five countries had to abstain to block the resolution and he didn’t think his calls would affect the final vote. He compared the exercise to a battle drill, to see how quickly he could get foreign officials on the phone.
The FBI knew that Flynn had called Kislyak, too. It’s not clear when the bureau learned of the call but they asked him about it during his pivotal Jan. 24 interview. Flynn said he didn’t try to influence the Russian envoy, but just wanted to know where the Russians stood.
The next day UNSCR 2334 passed 14-0, with Samantha Power casting a vote to abstain, forsaking America’s customary role of blocking anti-Israel actions at the U.N. Obama had reinforced his regional realignment strategy by balancing opposing forces—weakening Israel and empowering the Palestinians. That’s the generous reading. It was the 44th president’s parting shot at America’s most important regional ally.
Within the week, Obama aides were zeroing in on Flynn. The outgoing White House claimed it wanted to know why Putin announced on Dec. 30 that he would refrain from responding to the expulsion of dozens of Russian diplomats. The FBI said it had an answer—the bureau had a record of a phone call between Kislyak and Flynn from the day before Putin made his decision public.
Former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe writes in his 2019 book, The Threat, that he was alerted to the information by an analyst and passed it on to Comey, who told Clapper, who briefed Obama. Comey corroborated McCabe’s account in congressional testimony, while Clapper swore under oath that he did not brief the president.
Clapper may be telling the truth. The unmasking list shows that Obama officials were listening in on Flynn’s conversations in real time. It’s possible Obama didn’t need Clapper to tell him about the call. According to former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, Obama knew about the Flynn-Kislyak call no later than Jan. 5, when he was discussing it in an Oval Office meeting. She says Comey was the only other official present—which contradicts Susan Rice’s account. Obama’s former National Security Advisor said she and Vice President Joe Biden were also there.
This week, acting DNI Richard Grenell declassified a previously redacted passage from an email Rice sent to herself on inauguration day 2017 regarding the Jan. 5 meeting. The newly unredacted section showed that Obama was fully read into the anti-Flynn operation.
According to the Rice email, Obama asked if the FBI director was saying that they “should not pass sensitive information related to Russia to Flynn.” Obama knew at the time there was no evidence that Flynn had any untoward relationship with Russia—the FBI had been investigating the allegations for more than four months and found “no derogatory information” on Flynn.
On Jan. 7, the DNI official who gave Obama his daily intelligence briefing requested to have Flynn’s name unmasked, making the information accessible to numerous Obama officials with whom the briefing was shared, and thus expanding the pool of possible sources.
Adam Entous was offered the leak of the Dec. 29 call early on. “I didn’t know what to make of it,” the writer, now at The New Yorker, told a Georgetown audience. “There were divisions within the newsroom. At that point, I’m at The Washington Post. There are divisions about this: Why is it news that Michael Flynn is talking to the Russian ambassador? He should be talking to the Russian ambassador.”
Then the leak was offered to Entous’ Post colleague David Ignatius. “This is something a columnist can do, unlike me as a news reporter,” said Entous. “He was able to just throw this piece of red meat out there.” Indeed, it’s how the Obama team intended to bloody the waters. On Jan. 10, according to Flynn’s lawyer Sidney Powell, Clapper told Ignatius to “take the kill shot on Flynn.” Ignatius published the leak in his Jan. 12 column, describing Flynn’s Dec. 29 conversation with Kislyak. “According to a senior U.S. government official,” wrote Ignatius, “Flynn phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials ... What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions?”
The story ignited the Trump-Russia collusion narrative, which was intended to damage Flynn while disguising the nature and purpose of the campaign. The criminal leak of a classified intercept was evidence that the Obama White House was spying on the transition team, and for the same reason they’d spied on lawmakers and pro-Israel activists—to know the plans of Iran deal opponents.
To conceal their illegal surveillance of the incoming NSA and other Trump officials, Obama aides repurposed Hillary Clinton’s Trump-Russia collusion narrative, which had fed dozens of pre-election news reports and won the FBI a warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. Now the media had the Trump White House on the defensive, identifying likely “points of collusion” everywhere, while covering up Obama’s spying operation.
The outgoing administration caught another break when the transition team made an unforced error. Days after the Ignatius story broke, Vice President Mike Pence said on TV that Flynn had assured him there was no talk of sanctions. Either Pence had misunderstood, or Flynn didn’t explain himself clearly enough. Later Flynn took responsibility for the mix-up. He was sorry he’d put Pence “in a position,” and he “should have said, ‘I don’t know. I can’t recall,’ which is the truth.” Flynn further elaborated on the call with Kislyak: “It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out.” Flynn said that he told the Russian envoy when they come to office, “’We’ll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.”
There was no promise to relieve sanctions on Russia and tamper with Obama’s policy before Trump came to office, never mind collusion. But the discrepancy between Pence’s statement and the transcript of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak gave Comey and McCabe a window of opportunity. On Jan. 24, they sent two FBI agents to interview Flynn at the White House. They came back and reported that they didn’t think Flynn lied. That didn’t matter either. The FBI edited the record of the interview.
Meanwhile, Flynn continued to do the job the president had chosen him for. After Iran conducted a ballistic missile test and its Yemeni proxies attacked a Saudi naval ship, he announced in the White House press room: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Former Obama aides fumed: The Trump administration had no choice but to stay in the JCPOA. Then they flipped through the dog-eared pages of the Iran Deal playbook and pushed into the press rumors regarding the loyalties of a combat veteran who served his country in uniform for more than three decades. Had Michael Flynn sold out his country to Russia?
On Feb. 9, Entous finally got his chance to publish the leaked intercept of the Kislyak call. He and Washington Post colleagues Greg Miller and Ellen Nakashima found nine current and former U.S. officials to confirm that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian. It went unremarked that the article provided evidence of yet another leak of Flynn’s name from a classified intercept, and thus proof of a massive spying operation targeting the Trump team.
Trump had been warned. Obama was serious when he told him not to bring on Flynn. The new president’s hand was forced, and the national security adviser left the White House on Feb. 13. Within the year, prosecutors from Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation threatened to charge Flynn’s son with lobbying violations if he didn’t plead guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
By then, Russiagate was in overdrive—one of the most destructive conspiracy theories in U.S. history was well on its way to poisoning minds around the country. It appeared to cast an even deeper spell on the elite urban classes whose peers in the press and government had fueled it in the name of “resisting” Trump. And yet only a small fraction of those who imagined themselves to have the inside story of the Trump team’s secret collusion with Russia to defeat Clinton understood the origins of the fantasy world they had been engulfed by.
Russiagate was not a hoax, as some conservative journalists call it. Rather, it was a purposeful extension of the Obama administration’s Iran Deal media campaign, and of the secret espionage operation targeting those opposed to Obama’s efforts to realign American interests with those of a terror state that embodies the most corrosive forms of anti-Semitism.
It’s not hard to see why the previous president went after Flynn: The retired general’s determination to undo the Iran Deal was grounded in his own experience in two Middle Eastern theaters of combat, where he saw how Iran murdered Americans and threatened American interests. But why Obama would choose the Islamic Republic as a partner and encourage tactics typically employed by third-world police states remain a mystery.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).