Two days before the Inauguration of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States, Michael Flynn, a retired lieutenant general and former intelligence officer, sat down in a Washington restaurant. On the tablecloth, he placed a leather-bound folder and two phones, which flashed with text messages and incoming calls. A gaunt, stern-looking man with hooded eyes and a Roman nose, Flynn is sharp in both manner and language. He had been one of Trump’s earliest supporters, a vociferous booster on television, on Twitter, and, most memorably, from the stage of the Republican National Convention. Strident views and a penchant for conspiracy theories often embroiled him in controversy—in a hacked e-mail from last summer, former Secretary of State Colin Powell called him “right-wing nutty”—but Trump rewarded Flynn’s loyalty by making him his national-security adviser. Now, after months of unrelenting scrutiny, Flynn seemed to believe that he could find a measure of obscurity in the West Wing, steps away from Trump and the Oval Office. “I want to go back to having an out-of-sight role,” he told me.
That ambition proved illusory. Three weeks into his job, the Washington Post revealed that Flynn, while he was still a private citizen and Barack Obama was still President, had discussed American sanctions against Russia with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador in Washington. The conversations were possibly illegal. Flynn and Kislyak’s communications, by phone and text, occurred on the same day the Obama Administration announced the expulsion of thirty-five Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russia’s efforts to swing the election in Trump’s favor. Flynn had previously denied talking about sanctions with the Ambassador. At the restaurant, he said that he didn’t think there was anything untoward about the call: “I’ve had a relationship with him since my days at the D.I.A.”—the Defense Intelligence Agency, which Flynn directed from 2012 to 2014. But, in a classic Washington spectacle of action followed by coverup followed by collapse, Flynn soon started backpedalling, saying, through a spokesman, that he “couldn’t be certain that the topic [of sanctions] never came up.”

He compounded his predicament by making the same denial to Vice-President Mike Pence, who repeated it on television. Flynn later apologized to Pence. But by then his transgressions had been made public. In a White House characterized by chaos and conflict—a Byzantine court led by a reality-television star, family members, and a circle of ideologues and loyalists—Flynn was finished.
The episode created countless concerns, about the President’s truthfulness, competence, temperament, and associations. How much did Trump know and when did he know it?
John McCain, a Republican and the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said that the fiasco was a “troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national-security apparatus” and raised “further questions” about the Trump Administration’s intentions regarding Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
In one of several recent conversations, Flynn told me, “We have to figure out how to work with Russia instead of making it an enemy. We have so many problems that we were handed on a plate from this President”—meaning Obama. He lifted a bread plate and waved it. He characterized the negative attention on him as part of a larger conspiracy against Trump. “I’m a target to get at Trump to delegitimize the election,” he said. The press had him “damn near all wrong.” Reporters were just chasing after wild theories, while neglecting to consider his career as a decorated Army officer. “You don’t just sprinkle magic dust on someone, and, poof, they become a three-star general,” he said.
But, even before Flynn’s rapid fall, his closest military colleagues had been struggling to make sense of what had happened to the talented and grounded general they once knew. “Mike is inarguably one of the finest leaders the Army has ever produced,” James (Spider) Marks, a retired major general, told me. And yet, watching the first night of the Republican National Convention, last July, Marks was taken aback when his old friend appeared onscreen.
“Wake up, America!” Flynn said, his jaw set and his hands gripping the sides of the lectern. The United States was in peril: “Our very existence is threatened.” The moment demanded a President with “guts,” he declared, not a “weak, spineless” one who “believes she is above the law.”
In the early two-thousands, Marks was Flynn’s commanding officer at the Army’s intelligence academy, in Fort Huachuca, Arizona; one of his daughters went to school with one of Flynn’s sons. Marks regarded Flynn as “smart, humble, and funny.” What he saw on TV was something else: “That’s a vitriolic side of Mike that I never knew.”
When, twenty minutes into the speech, Flynn mentioned Hillary Clinton, the Convention audience responded with chants of “Lock her up!” Flynn nodded, leading the chant: “That’s right—lock her up.” He went on, “Damn right. . . . And you know why we’re saying that? We’re saying that because, if I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth—a tenth—of what she did, I would be in jail today.”
Marks’s thirty-five-year-old daughter, who was watching with him, turned to her father and said, “Dad, General Flynn is scaring me.”
Trump, in his inaugural address, presented a dire image of the country—a nation suffering from poverty and blight, overextended abroad, and neglectful of its own citizens. He pledged to end the “carnage” by putting “America first”—echoing the isolationist creed of the nineteen-thirties.
The beginning of Trump’s Presidency remained true to his campaign: even when it came to the highly sensitive issues of national security, Trump and his aides acted with ideological ferocity and a heedless sense of procedure that alarmed many inside the government. The Trump Administration’s early days have invited comparison to the most unnerving political moments in memory, particularly Richard Nixon’s behavior during the Watergate scandal.
On January 27th, a week after taking office, Trump issued an executive order suspending all refugee admissions and temporarily banning entry to citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries. His chief political strategist, Stephen Bannon, reportedly oversaw the crafting of the order, along with Stephen Miller, the White House’s senior policy adviser. (Miller disputes this.) Flynn raised some concerns about how the order might affect relationships with allies, but those were ignored. James Mattis, the Secretary of Defense, and General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received little notice of the order.
The next day, Trump signed another executive order, reorganizing the National Security Council. He promoted Bannon, a former investment banker and chairman of the far-right Web site Breitbart News, to a permanent seat on the “principals committee.” Elevating a political adviser to national-security policymaking marked a radical departure from the practice of recent Administrations.
“I said, ‘Fetch Chardonnay,’ not ‘Riesling.’ ”
By this point, the Justice Department had informed Trump officials of concerns about Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador and his public accounting of them. The acting Attorney General, Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama Administration, told the White House that she worried Flynn might be vulnerable to blackmail by Russian agents, the Washington Post reported. Yet Flynn remained an important player in national-security matters. “He was always in the room, and on every call,” one Administration official told me.
Each morning, Flynn attended Trump’s intelligence briefing—the President’s Daily Brief. Bannon joined occasionally, as did Mike Pompeo, the director of the C.I.A., and Reince Priebus, the White House chief of staff. Flynn conferred with senior intelligence officials on how to best tailor the briefing for Trump. Presidents are particular about how they receive information, Michael Morell, a former acting C.I.A. director, who prepared and delivered the President’s Daily Brief to several Presidents, told me. George H. W. Bush preferred text on a half page, in a single column, limited to four or five pages; the briefer read fifteen to twenty pages aloud to George W. Bush, who preferred more material and liked to discuss it with the briefer; Barack Obama studied the material alone, over breakfast. Trump’s briefings were being shaped to address macroeconomics, trade, and “alliances,” Flynn told me, in a telephone conversation earlier this month. “The P.D.B. is not always about just your enemies.”
Congress created the National Security Council in 1947, in the hope of establishing a more orderly process for coördinating foreign and defense policy. Six years later, Dwight Eisenhower decided that the council needed a chief and named the first national-security adviser—a former soldier and banker, Robert Cutler. The position evolved into one of enormous importance. McGeorge Bundy, who served under John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, regarded himself as a “traffic cop”—controlling access to the President. Under Richard Nixon, Henry Kissinger dramatically expanded the role, often meeting directly with the Soviet Ambassador, and bypassing the State Department.
The temptations of power nearly overwhelmed Ronald Reagan’s Presidency, in what became known as the Iran-Contra affair, when national-security staffers were discovered to be running covert actions involving Iran and Central America. The scandal prompted some to call for the national-security adviser to become a Senate-confirmed position. Heading off these demands, George H. W. Bush chose a retired general, Brent Scowcroft, who had held the job under Gerald Ford, to return to the role, confident that Scowcroft would respect the lines between intelligence work, military operations, and policymaking. “He will be an honest broker,” Bush said.
Since then, according to Stephen Hadley, George W. Bush’s second-term national-security adviser, the “honest broker” has become the model for Republican and Democratic Administrations alike. That meant overseeing a process that is “fair and transparent, where each member of the council can get his views to the President,” Hadley said. In late November, Hadley met with Flynn, who was seeking advice, at Trump Tower. Hadley left the meeting optimistic that Flynn meant to act as a facilitator in the traditional way.
But Flynn’s challenge—and now, potentially, his successor’s—was unique, as Bannon had seemingly moved to set up a kind of “parallel, shadow” national-security staff for his own purposes, one council staffer told me. Bannon, who had no direct experience in policymaking, seized a central role on issues dear to Trump. For example, during the campaign Trump had railed against NATO members for not paying their full freight, which unnerved diplomats and politicians throughout Europe. On February 5th, according to the staffer, Bannon sent questions to the N.S.C. staff, requesting a breakdown of contributions to NATO from individual members since 1949. Many of the rank-and-file staffers were alarmed, not just because the questions seemed designed to impugn NATO’s legitimacy but because they represented a breach of protocol by tasking N.S.C. staffers with political duties. “Those were Flynn’s people, not political operatives,” the staffer said.
Flynn came into the White House wanting to streamline the bureaucracy of the N.S.C., which is staffed mostly by career civil servants from the State Department, the Pentagon, and intelligence agencies, believing that it moved too ponderously under Obama. But Flynn, in a contest for power with Bannon, soon seemed to realize that the traditional setup could help him build influence in the White House. “It was dawning on him that the process privileged him,” the N.S.C. staffer said. Others in the White House treated the customary protocols as impediments. “We are moving big and we are moving fast,” Bannon said, according to the Times.
Before Flynn’s troubles mounted, I asked him whether it was appropriate for Bannon to have a permanent seat on the N.S.C. He paused. “Well, I mean, that decision’s been made,” he said. Besides, didn’t other political advisers enjoy similar access? He brought up Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama. Jarrett did not have a seat on the National Security Council, I said. “She didn’t? How about, like, Axelrod? He was Clinton, right?” (David Axelrod, who was Obama’s chief strategist, sometimes sat in on N.S.C. meetings but did not participate in policymaking discussions.) Look, Flynn said, “the President shapes the team that he needs to be able to do the job that he has to do. So that’s kind of where we are on that one.”
Flynn grew up in a large Irish-American household, in Middletown, Rhode Island. He was one of nine children. His father was a soldier, a veteran of the Second World War and Korea, who retired as a sergeant first class in the Army; his mother, a high-school valedictorian, worked at a secretarial school and was heavily involved in Democratic politics, before going back to school to get undergraduate and law degrees. A headstrong teen-ager, Flynn skateboarded in drained swimming pools and surfed through hurricanes and winter storms. “Mike was a charger,” Sid Abruzzi, a surf-shop owner in nearby Newport, who knew Flynn as a teen-ager, said.
In 1981, after graduating from the University of Rhode Island, Flynn joined the Army. He qualified as an intelligence officer, and got orders to join the 82nd Airborne Division, a paratrooper unit in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In 1983, Flynn deployed to Grenada, as part of the American invasion force. He set up a listening post on a cliffside to intercept Cuban radio transmissions. One day, spotting two American soldiers being swept out to sea, Flynn leaped off the cliff—“about a forty-foot jump into the swirling waters,” he recalls, in his book, “The Field of Fight”—and rescued the men.
He won a rapid series of promotions. In 1994, he helped plan operations in support of the American in