Two days after firing Michael Flynn as his national security adviser in February, President Donald Trump told several aides and friends he should have kept him instead.
Trump, several people close to him say, sometimes appears to question decisions even after they’ve been made. He told New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie that he could still be labor secretary even after he’d publicly named Alexander Acosta to the role. He privately told former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani he could potentially still name him as attorney general after he’d offered Jeff Sessions to the job.
But the Flynn situation has been different, several officials and advisers said. “I was kind of stunned,” one person said. “I asked him. You fired him already. What are you going to do?”
Trump has grown obsessed with defending the tough-talking 58-year old general, repeatedly telling aides and associates in private that Flynn was a “good man.” One adviser close to Trump said he’s heard Trump defend the general using the exact words described in reports of memos written by former FBI director James Comey recording his conversations with the president – and that Trump has told people inside the White House he wished the investigation would go away.
It has left White House officials and outside advisers perplexed: why is Trump so determined to defend a man at the center of a federal investigation that is damaging his administration, and a man he has accused of lying to his vice president?
Officials say Trump has remained resolute in defending Flynn even though aides, including White House counsel Don McGahn, have reminded Trump of the Russia investigation and other problems. News reports about Flynn, including his lobbying for foreign governments, haven’t bothered Trump nearly as much as they’ve bothered his aides, senior officials said. News of subpoenas haven’t caused him to lose faith, even privately, associates said.
“A lot of people in the White House don’t want anything to do with Flynn,” one White House official said. ”But Trump loves him. He thinks everyone is out to get him.”
Robert Kelner, a lawyer defending Flynn, didn’t respond to several calls seeking comment.
Flynn, who was dismissed in 2014 as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was widely disliked by many of Trump’s top national security staff, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary James Mattis and others.
“From his time at DIA onward, I’ve heard really scary stuff,” said Matthew Waxman, a top George W. Bush administration official now at Columbia Law School. “I know several people who were thinking about NSC jobs but were very hesitant to work with Flynn because they thought he was entirely unqualified.”
A White House spokesman said Trump cares about loyalty and doesn’t like seeing people close to him come under criticism.
Yet people who know Trump say that’s often not true. He often immediately disassociates himself with people who become controversial, at least publicly. He has said he hasn’t spoken with Roger Stone, often mentioned in the Russia investigation, in years, though he has. Stone didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Trump’s spokesman has publicly downplayed the role Paul Manafort played in Trump’s campaign, even though Manafort was campaign manager.
Among some who know Trump, the constant need to defend Flynn seems out of self-preservation. Trump, who liked employees to sign non-disclosure agreements, knows Flynn had at least one private meeting with Trump adviser Jared Kushner and Russian officials, and has been in the room for dozens of other sensitive meetings.
Kushner has also defended Flynn internally and was “very supportive” of the hire as national security adviser, several people involved in the transition said.
“You don’t want to fire people that have worked with you that closely,” said Sam Nunberg, a former top aide who Trump fired. “Once you fire Mike Flynn, he loses all executive privilege.”
Others say the motive is more about their bond — which unlike some in Trump’s world is real, White House officials say. Trump is protective of Flynn out of a sense of loyalty, according to a Flynn associate, who said the president doesn’t apply political calculations to his close personal relationships. Trump often judges people on his personal bond to them and how they can help him, and he saw in Flynn both.
“Think of it like a family that fights, not a group of politicals who throw each other under the bus,” said the associate. “Flynn and the president have been through quite a lot together,” the associate said, adding that the pair “are on good terms and I imagine will remain so.”
White House officials said Trump has told people to pass warm messages to Flynn if they speak to him.
Two former campaign officials said Trump and Flynn became close on the campaign during long days of travel on the road. Trump marveled to aides about Flynn’s abilities as a surrogate to command a crowd and respected him for breaking with the national-security establishment to endorse him, giving Trump much-needed cover on the defense front.
“Not many people in the national security world were endorsing us,” one campaign aide. “You have to remember people were mainly signing their names on a list of people who could never endorse us.”
And, before his controversial days at the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn was far more respected, national security observers say.
“I have many friends who served with Flynn or under Flynn who had great respect for him as a military commander,” said Waxman, the Columbia professor. “He really did some great things in defense of our country and our forces.”
Once Flynn joined the administration, he quickly clashed with other aides. One associate compared Flynn to Corey Lewandowski, his former campaign manager who is disliked by many in Trump’s world.
Trump also continues to talk to Lewandowski, who is considered as a candidate to join the administration.
Lewandowski said he has not spoken with anyone about joining the administration, even though officials say he has spoken to Trump and White House aides several times this week.
Kenneth P. Vogel contributed to this report.