Last month, President Donald Trump called his former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and gave him a simple message: “Stay strong.” This bears an eerie resemblance to a conversation, more than four decades ago, between another scandal-ridden president and a fired staffer under investigation. On April 30, 1973, Richard Nixon fired his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, and called him later that day to say, “But let me say you’re a strong man, goddammit, and I love you.” In the context of the unfolding Watergate scandal, the meaning of Nixon’s words were clear: “Stay loyal, don’t testify against me.”
The current investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign hasn’t yet reached the clarity of Watergate, so we can’t be so certain of the meaning of Trump’s words. But we know for certain that Trump and Flynn have a strong bond, one that has survived Flynn’s forced resignation in mid-February after just 24 days on the job. Time and again, Trump has stood up for Flynn even when it undercut the president’s position or went against advice he received from trusted sources. According to a Daily Beast report on Thursday, the president would even welcome Flynn back to the White House if the former adviser emerges unscathed from the federal investigation.
The question is: Why are Trump and Flynn so loyal to each other? Innocent and sinister possibilities abound.
Less than 48 hours after Trump was elected in November, President Barack Obama reportedly warned him against hiring Flynn. As NBC News noted, “The Obama administration fired Flynn in 2014 from his position as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, largely because of mismanagement and temperament issues.” Trump ignored Obama’s warnings. On November 18, Flynn accepted Trump’s offer to be national security adviser.
On January 4, Flynn told the Trump transition team he was under criminal investigation by the FBI for secretly lobbying for Turkey. Trump continued to have faith in Flynn. On January 26, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates told White House counsel Don McGahn that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail by the Russian government because he had lied about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Trump stuck with Flynn, and only forced his resignation after leaks from the Russian investigation revealed Flynn had misled the White House about his conversation with Kislyak, making it politically impossible for Trump to keep him on.
Days after Flynn’s resignation, Trump met with then-FBI Director James Comey. According to Comey’s notes from that meeting, Trump told him about the investigation into Flynn and said, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Finally, on multiple occasions since Flynn left his post, Trump has asked White House lawyers if he could contact Flynn. Trump was repeatedly told that it would be inappropriate, but he ignored legal counsel and called Flynn in April to say, “Stay strong.”
The pattern is clear: Trump has some sort of unusually intense devotion to Flynn, which leads him to override wise advice. Trump has been exceptionally loyal to Flynn and Flynn has reciprocated. “Thank God Trump is president,” Flynn told a friend after losing his job. “Can you imagine if Hillary had won and what she would be doing?” On Thursday morning, Flynn’s lawyer indicated his client won’t honor the subpoena from the Senate Intelligence Committee to speak on his Russian connections. If there’s a code of silence between Trump and Flynn, it’s holding strong.
A close associate of Flynn explains that this bond between Trump and Flynn is a personal one. “These are two men who bonded on the campaign trail,” the Flynn associate told Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff. “Flynn always believed that Trump would win. They were together so much during the campaign that Flynn became family. There has been zero sign of anything but supreme loyalty.”
The idea that Trump would show “supreme loyalty” to anything other than his own best interests is laughable. Trump is a thrice-married man who has repeatedly betrayed those who have done business with him. During an inheritance battle, he cut off health insurance for a nephew’s chronically ill child. When Trump’s mentor Roy Cohn contracted AIDS, Trump cut him off from his life. Trump is not, in other words, a many for whom loyalty is a value in and of itself. If Trump does value loyalty, it’s loyalty as understood by mobsters: the reciprocal loyalty of those who stay true to each other because betrayal would cause both men to be punished.
The relationship between Trump and Flynn is murky. Perhaps Trump sticks with him for some complex emotional reason: because Flynn was an early supporter, they share similar foreign policy views, Trump loves men in uniform, or because Flynn was fired by Obama, whom Trump hates. More broadly, Trump has a defiant streak and might be loyal to Flynn out of sheer obstinacy, a rejection of interference from figures like Obama, Yates, and Comey.
But we must also consider Trump’s depraved character, and the fact that Flynn is under investigation for something that could easily entangle Trump’s administration, perhaps even bring down the president himself. Given this, perhaps there’s a more sinister reason for Trump’s fierce loyalty. When he tells Flynn to “stay strong,” the message might simply be: “No snitching.”