The Trump transition team fired the son of Lt. General Michael Flynn – the president-elect’s pick for national security adviser – on Tuesday, after Gen. Flynn’s son tweeted that the fake-news story, which had inspired a gunman to storm a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, had yet to be “proven false,” and re-shared another post claiming that the arrested gunman was an actor.
But the incident has intensified criticism of Flynn the elder, who has long shared his son’s predilection for conspiracy theories, as he stands ready to step into a cabinet position of unparalleled influence on President-elect Donald Trump. Unlike other cabinet positions, Flynn's appointment is not subject to Senate approval.
Throughout the campaign, Flynn routinely tweeted links to fake news articles, particularly those promoting baseless theories about the Clintons, and promoted or tagged “alt-right” (a white supremacist movement) and white nationalist figures. And after becoming director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2012, subordinates at the agency compiled a list of what they dubbed “Flynn facts” – false statements of dubious origin that his staff would privately try to dissuade him from repeating in public, according to The New Yorker.
That tendency to lean on faulty information has caused a growing number of Republican national-security officials to voice public doubts.
“The national security adviser should have a moderating effect on the instincts of the president, and it remains to be seen if Mike can do that,” said former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, in an interview with The New York Times.
As national security adviser, Flynn will attend Trump’s daily intelligence briefings and senior staff meetings, in addition to overseeing the White House’s National Security Council, a 400-person department dedicated to recommending policy to the president. His office will be just down the hall from the Oval Office.
Democrats were immediately critical of the selection when it was announced in November. And on Tuesday, Rep. Adam Schiff (D) of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said that Flynn’s promotion of fake news "raises profound questions about his suitability for this important position," according to the Associated Press.
"Someone who is so oblivious to the facts, or intentionally ignorant of them, should not be entrusted with policy decisions that affect the safety of the American people," he told The New York Times.
The conspiracy theory backed by Flynn’s son that precipitated the standoff in Washington, D.C., claimed that the pizzeria, Comet Ping Pong, was the home of a child sex slave ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief.
“The false rumor first surfaced on the online message board 4Chan and quickly spread to Twitter and Reddit, where a discussion thread titled #PizzaGate attracted 20,000 subscribers,” wrote The Christian Science Monitor’s Gretel Kauffman on Monday. “In the weeks since, Comet Ping Pong's owner, employees, and others affiliated with the restaurant have been on the receiving end of endless social media harassment and hundreds of death threats.”
"What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences," said the restaurant’s owner, James Alefantis, in a statement on Sunday. "I hope that those involved in fanning these flames will take a moment to contemplate what happened here today, and stop promoting these falsehoods right away."
On Tuesday, vice president-elect Mike Pence acknowledged that Flynn’s son had been part of the transition team, helping with scheduling and administration, but refused to answer questions about whether a security clearance had been granted.
"Whatever the appropriate paperwork was to assist him in that regard, Jake, I'm sure was taking place," he told CNN's Jake Tapper.
This report contains material from the Associated Press.