On Michael Flynn’s Tenure as National Security Advisor

News broke late last night that President Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor (NSA), retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, resigned his position amidst mounting concerns that he had improper and possibly illegal exchanges with Russia’s ambassador, and concerns that he was possibly compromised and vulnerable to blackmail. I’m not going to wade into these weightier issues. Flynn’s appointment to be President Trump’s NSA has long been controversial for a number of reasons, and I doubt that we’ve heard the last of this particular case as investigations into his relations with Russian officials appear to be ongoing.

Instead, I was curious as to how Flynn’s time as NSA stacked up to his predecessors. A large part of my dissertation research involved collecting a bunch of information on bureaucratic appointments. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at these data, but this seemed like a nice motivator and so this morning I decided to take a look back. The duration of presidential appointments varies according to a number of factors, but Flynn’s tenure was strikingly short. Figure 1 plots the duration of each National Security Advisor’s tenure by the total number of days that they were in office. NSAs are ordered according to their first entry date, from top to bottom. So earlier NSAs are at the top, later NSAs are at the bottom. Figure 2 plots the NSAs according to their length of time in office.

One important thing to note is that some NSAs, like Robert Cutler and Brent Scowcroft, serve in this position multiple times and their values represent the sum of those terms.

Duration of National Security Advisors' terms in office.
Figure1: Duration of National Security Advisors’ terms in office ordered by start dates.
National Security Advisor terms ordered according to time in office.
Figure 2: National Security Advisor terms ordered according to time in office.

As though it were not already obvious, plotting Flynn’s term against other NSAs further highlights how unusual his brief time in office is. Retired General James Jones, who was replaced relatively early as President Obama’s NSA, is not all that unusual compared with many  other NSAs. Henry Kissinger has by far the longest time in office. The length of Kissinger’s time in office is made all the more impressive considering that this was one continuous stint, partly overlapping with his time as Secretary of State, as well as the fact that Kissinger was a controversial figure in his own right, waging his own insider battles against rivals. Even McGeorge Bundy and Walt Rostow, who presided over the disastrous escalation of the war in Vietnam, served fairly long terms in office. William Harding Jackson, the second shortest serving NSA, is a curious case as he served at a time when the position of NSA and its role in the White House was not yet fully solidified. Further, while his term is relatively short, Jackson appears to have served in a number of other positions in the White House and the CIA around this time. I’ve not come across any information suggesting that Jackson’s short time in office was due to scandal.

In seems reasonable to conclude that Flynn, who was incredibly controversial prior to his appointment, would not have been viewed as an appropriate choice for this position under previous presidents, and his departure says something important about the administration’s selection and vetting of candidates. His departure is also important for a number of other reasons. One, it shines a very bright light on the numerous leaks emerging from the administration reporting on the internal discord and lack of coordination among President Trump’s top advisors. This shakeup could open the way for other advisors, like Bannon, to further solidify their influence with President Trump. It may also soften the administration’s more hawkish positions towards Iran. Further, for such a high-ranking official to leave so early, and under such conditions, will likely embolden domestic opposition in their opposition to Trump appointees and their calls to further investigate the President’s ties with Russia as it signals some veracity to their concerns, and could be viewed as payoff for their continued efforts to obstruct and block the administration’s agenda.

Stay tuned.

About Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University. He received his Ph.D. in Political Science from Binghamton University in 2013. His research focuses on the political and economic determinants of foreign economic and security policy, security issues, and state repression.

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