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Michael Flynn's troubling penchant for conspiracy theories

Lauren Carroll
By Lauren Carroll February 14, 2017

Gen. Michael Flynn has resigned from his post as White House national security adviser, after less than a month on the job.

Flynn resigned after it came to light that he spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about U.S. sanctions on Russia — before Trump was inaugurated. He had repeatedly denied that his conversations with Kislyak broached that topic.

Flynn, a former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, has taken fire for his Russia connections since President Donald Trump first tapped him to be his top national security aide. As fact-checkers, we also took special notice of Flynn’s taste for fake news and conspiracy theories — a trait that seems incongruous with a high-ranking intelligence role.

Before joining the White House, Flynn regularly directed his Twitter followers to conspiracy-minded sources and blogs, often pushing fake claims about Hillary Clinton. Although social media has made it easier for people to make their beliefs known, experts told us that they are unaware of any past national security advisers who so readily accepted such groundless theories.

"To give (conspiracies) that sort of endorsement without checking the facts thoroughly is not something you associate with national security," said Elizabeth Saunders, a George Washington University professor and U.S. foreign policy expert. "This is a job about information collection and dissemination."

Flynn has since deleted some of his controversial tweets, but CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski and Nathan McDermott documented many of them.

In the week leading up to Election Day, Flynn notably tweeted an article alleging proof that Hillary Clinton is involved in money laundering and child sex trafficking. These rumors have no basis in fact.

"U decide - NYPD Blows Whistle on New Hillary Emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes w Children, etc… MUST READ!" Flynn tweeted Nov. 2, linking to an anonymously sourced True Pundit article.

Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, also fed into the unfounded rumors that Washington pizza restaurant Comet Ping Pong is the front of a child sex ring run by Clinton and her campaign manager (the incident dubbed "Pizzagate").

The elder Flynn retweeted a baseless claim that if Clinton were to win, Christianity would be prohibited under United Nations Agenda 21. Agenda 21 consists of voluntary suggestions that would help adopting countries be more sustainable, but many conspiracy theorists see it as an existential threat to an American way of life.

And he linked to a tweet that purported to show Clinton "wearing hijab in solidarity with Islamic terrorists." The image attached to the tweet pictured Clinton wearing the traditional hair covering while in Pakistan on State Department business in 2009.

Offline, Flynn peddled the ridiculous notion that Democrats in Florida wanted to impose Islamic Shariah law in the state. Speaking of the Florida Senate in an August 2016 speech, he said, "All 12 Democrats voted to impose Shariah law at the local and state level."

That assertion is a distortion of the Democrats’ opposition to a Republican-backed bill regarding judges’ ability to consider foreign law in their courts. PolitiFact Florida fact-checked a similar claim by bloggers in 2014 and ruled it Pants on Fire.

Trump has been known to repeat conspiracy theories himself, which might explain his appointment of Flynn. Presidents tend to "choose someone who reinforces their positions," said I.M. Destler, a University of Maryland professor who co-wrote a book about national security advisers.

But the ability to sense when information seems fishy and seek out the true story is crucial for a national security adviser, Saunders said.

"There’s this dimension that there’s this embrace of a fact-free zone, and, again, that isn’t what a president usually looks for in a national security adviser," she said of Flynn and Trump.

Past national security advisers have faced politics, internal disagreements and scandal, she added, noting specifically John Poindexter, an adviser to President Ronald Reagan who was implicated in the Iran-Contra affair.

"The National Security Council as an institution is supposed to be a little invisible and boring; it’s not supposed to make headlines the way it has been," she said. "That’s a sign that this is not working."

During the election, Flynn was one of a handful of Trump advisers who had clear-cut ties to Russia, fueling rumors that the Russian government was propping up the Trump campaign. Flynn has appeared multiple times on RT, a state-backed Russian news agency, and he sat at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a dinner celebrating the network’s 10-year anniversary in 2015.

Flynn’s history with RT and the controversy surrounding his phone call with the Russian ambassador caused problems for the White House by demonstrating a lack of trust between Flynn and other officials and by creating the perception that Flynn has improper ties with Russia.

"Suspicion doesn’t disqualify someone," Destler said. "But if they don’t find a way to counteract that (suspicion), it’s serious."

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Our Sources

CNN, "Michael Flynn's son and chief of staff pushed conspiracy theories, obscene memes online," Nov. 17, 2016

PolitiFact, "How Pizzagate went from fake news to a real problem for a D.C. business," Dec. 5, 2016

PolitiFact Florida, "Trump security adviser pick Michael Flynn repeated wildly wrong claim about FL Democrats, Sharia law," Nov. 22, 2016

Washington Post, "National security adviser Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador, despite denials, officials say," Feb. 9, 2017

New York Times, "The Michael Flynn Resignation: What We Know, What We Don’t," Feb. 14, 2017

Phone interview, UMD professor I.M. Destler, Feb. 14, 2017

Phone interview, GWU professor Elizabeth Saunders, Feb. 14, 2017

Email interview, SMU professor Joshua Rovner, Feb. 14, 2017

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