WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump’s controversial pick for national security adviser won’t get the public grilling he might have faced had lawmakers stuck by an earlier proposal to rein in the National Security Council. The proposal, which would have required retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn to undergo Senate confirmation, did not make it into the final legislation.
The House version of the annual National Defense Authorization Act had included a requirement that the president’s top national security aide face Senate confirmation should the National Security Council staff exceed 100 employees. The NSC currently has some 400 staff members.
That would almost certainly have required Flynn to face questions from Democratic senators regarding his more inflammatory statements through the years.
But at some point early in negotiations with the Senate, House Armed Services Committee members dropped their insistence on requiring confirmation hearings for the national security advisor position.
The proposal had nothing to do with the outcome of the election ― in fact, at the time it was made, the likely next president appeared to be Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, said people familiar with the negotiations. The proposal was dropped because Congress had no way to keep tabs on the NSC headcount at any given moment, they said.
Instead, the House went along with the Senate idea of capping the NSC staff. While the Senate bill had set the limit at 150, the compromise version both chambers plan to vote on in the coming days sets the limit at 200.
If Flynn were to face a confirmation hearing, Senate Democrats would have plenty of material to challenge his fitness for the role of national security adviser. Once a highly respected intelligence officer, Flynn suffered a dramatic fall from grace when he was pushed out of his role as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014.
People who worked at DIA with Flynn said he was forced to step down because of his poor management abilities. One DIA staffer, who has been at the agency since 2010, said Flynn was “kind of ADHD” and “impetuous” in his decision-making.
“He was always eager to go on to the next thing ― almost in the sense of, ‘What’s the next shiny object?’” said another DIA staffer who has worked with the Pentagon since 2008.
After leaving DIA, Flynn started a private intelligence firm. But these days, he is better known for his role at the center of controversies than for thoughtful intelligence analysis.
The year after he left the military, Flynn traveled to Moscow for an event hosted by the Kremlin-controlled television network Russia Today. He sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
As a private citizen, Flynn has grown increasingly outspoken about his beliefs about Islam. “Fear of Muslims is RATIONAL,” he tweeted in February. “Islam is a political ideology,” he said during a speech in August. “It definitely hides behind this notion of it being a religion.”
Flynn’s memoir, published earlier this year, frames the current geopolitical climate as a war between the U.S. and radical Islam.
Some of the people who worked with Flynn at DIA warned one another to be careful about mentioning Arabs or Muslims, because it would prompt him to launch into a lengthy tirade about radical Islam, said the second DIA staffer.
“Who do you report the head of the DIA to?”
At times, Flynn spoke disparagingly about Muslims in front of foreign allies, said the first staffer. During a small awards ceremony for an Australian military official who worked with the U.S. in Afghanistan, Flynn started describing one of their experiences in the field together, only to trail off by insulting Afghans and Muslims as “a different breed.”
The staffer who was present at the awards ceremony thought about reporting Flynn but decided against it. “Who do you report the head of the DIA to?” the person said.
Even some at DIA who voted for Trump, said the staffer, expressed “serious concern” about Flynn as national security advisor. “He has some battles to finish, some scores to settle.”
The National Security Council was created immediately after World War II as a way of coordinating the various intelligence and defense agencies. Through the years, though, the council’s decision-making power has grown dramatically.
Congressional Republicans in both chambers have wanted to rein in the NSC under the Obama administration as it grew in size and influence. The House version of the bill spent pages citing criticism of this arrangement, including quotations from former Defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta.