National Security Adviser-designate Michael T. Flynn has offered notably different views on Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, as the retired three-star Army general prepares to become Donald Trump’s closest White House adviser on Friday.
In his book on defeating Islamic terrorism, “The Field of Fight,” Mr. Flynn wrote that Mr. Putin would be of little or no help in the war to destroy the Islamic State.
But before a Russian audience, and also as Mr. Trump’s campaign adviser last fall, Mr. Flynn trumpeted the Republican nominee’s front-window position — that the Russian strongman is potentially a great ally in combating Islamic extremists.
Michael Ledeen, Mr. Flynn’s co-author and a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “Look, it’s obvious Trump wants to try to see what we can do in league with the Russians. So it would be silly right now to go out and pound your chest and say, ‘Bad man, bad man,’ and all of that.”
Mr. Flynn’s true position is shaping up as one of his most important White House roles. Mr. Trump has placed good relations with Moscow as a top foreign policy goal, yet has surrounded himself with skeptics.
Mr. Flynn’s Senate confirmation hearings last week revealed that Mr. Trump may have nominated a team of Cabinet rivals, not yes men, on the Russia question. As national security adviser, and in meeting daily with the president, Mr. Flynn will be the one who arbitrates.
Defense Secretary-designate James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Mr. Putin wants to “break” NATO.
“I have very modest expectations about areas of cooperation with Mr. Putin,” he said.
His words must have soothed committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, and other anti-Putin hawks. Mr. McCain has labeled the Russian president a “thug” and “murderer” for what he said were indiscriminate airstrikes in Syria that killed many innocent civilians.
Mr. Putin has demonstrated his strident anti-West policies by invading eastern Ukraine and launching a propaganda war against former Soviet-bloc countries that he wants to peel away from NATO influence.
Rep. Mike Pompeo, Kansas Republican, said during his confirmation for CIA director that Russia is “doing nothing to aid in the destruction and defeat of ISIS.”
President Obama named Mr. Flynn as Defense Intelligence Agency director and then fired him two years later for his persistence in discussing radical Islam, which the president says does not exist.
“The Field of Fight,” Mr. Flynn’s first book, was released in July. By then, he had been a Trump adviser for five months.
The book’s dismissal of Mr. Putin as an ally is remarkable, given Mr. Flynn’s more current comments.
Mr. Flynn condemned Mr. Putin’s brutal crackdown on Islamists in his country: “Incoherence dominates Putin’s counterterrorist operations with a welter of agencies and ministries forever getting in each other’s way. That gives the jihadis the chance to spread death throughout the North Caucasus.”
He also wrote of Russia’s incompetence: “Therefore, when it is said that Russia would make an ideal partner for fighting radical Islam, it behooves us to remember that the Russians haven’t been very effective at fighting jihadis on their own territory and are in cahoots with the Iranians. In Syria, the two allies have loudly proclaimed they are waging war against ISIS, but in reality the great bulk of their efforts are aimed at the opponents of the [Bashar] Assad regime. They are certainly not ‘fighting terrorists’ in the Middle East; theirs is a battle to rescue an embattled ally in Damascus.”
He concluded: “Although I believe America and Russia could find mutual ground fighting radical Islamists, there is no reason to believe Putin would welcome cooperation with us; quite the contrary, in fact.”
But Mr. Flynn provided a different perspective before the book was released.
In December 2015, he appeared on the Russian TV channel RT and said, “Right now, we have essentially the U.S. strategy and we have a Russian strategy in the region that does not appear to be in line with each other. And I think we have to step back and try to figure out how do we align those.”
He even talked of Russians and Americans sitting side by side in command centers.
“I do think little things like sharing intelligence, working together, getting each other inside of our operation centers to begin to understand where are the military objectives, but we also have to have a different set of strategic objectives that actually become mutually supporting,” he told the RT audience.
Once on the campaign trail last summer and fall, Mr. Flynn enthusiastically supported Mr. Trump’s talk of a U.S.-Russia alliance.
On MSNBC, an anchor asked Mr. Flynn how he could do business with a man who allegedly ordered the killing of a journalist, invaded Ukraine and is at war with Syrian civilians. Mr. Flynn responded that Mr. Obama recently worked with Mr. Putin to nail down the nuclear deal with Iranian, which the administration calls the chief state sponsor of terrorism in the world.
“Here is the U.S. working with Russia to give Iran all this nice stuff,” he said, referring to cash freed up for the ruling hard-line Islamic mullahs. “All Donald Trump is saying is, ‘Let’s find some common ground with the Russians. We have to deal with Russia. We cannot make Russia an enemy.’”
As to Democratic charges that the Trump team coordinated Russian hacking of Democrats, Mr. Flynn said, “Even the FBI has said there is nothing going on with Donald Trump and the Russia stuff.”
Second only to Mr. Trump, Mr. Flynn appears to receive the most negative coverage from Washington’s liberal media.
Reporters are particularly critical of his appearances on RT, the Russian channel that the intelligence community reported is a major Putin propaganda tool. RT paid Mr. Flynn a fee in December 2015 to speak at an event honoring the channel, and he sat next to Mr. Putin.
RT is available on Verizon cable and other providers. Larry King has a show on RT.
Mr. Ledeen, Mr. Flynn’s co-author, said the retired general is putting together a staff selected from the Defense Department and other institutions.
“These are young guys you have never heard of who are awfully good,” he said.
On the subject of a gap between “The Field of Fight” and Mr. Flynn’s campaign talk, Mr. Ledeen said, “What I hear is what we said in the book that cooperation with Russia is possible. Cooperation with Putin is unlikely. I think what they tried to do is finesse that whole subject in public statements. I don’t believe Flynn has changed his mind.”