Mike Mullen, the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, has voiced concerns about the temperament of Michael Flynn, the controversial retired army general who Donald Trump has chosen for national security adviser.
Mr Mullen said Mr Flynn, who served as his top intelligence officer at the Pentagon, had been “highly regarded” in the military. But speaking at the Aspen Institute, he said he was less impressed by the rhetoric that Mr Flynn had employed when campaigning for Mr Trump. Mr Flynn attracted controversy for leading chants of “lock her up” about Hillary Clinton at rallies and in a prominent speech at the Republican convention.
Asked whether Mr Flynn had the temperament for national security adviser, Mr Mullen responded: “I think based on the rhetoric, certainly the question is a valid question.
“When I knew him, he clearly had the temperament,” Mr Mullen said. “If it is the ‘lock her up’ temperament, that is not who I would want to advise me from a national security perspective.”
Some experts questioned the appointment of Mr Flynn to one of the most powerful positions in Washington. He is expected to wield more influence than his predecessors because Mr Trump has no foreign policy experience. Mr Mullen said he hoped Mr Flynn would adopt a model which ensured that the president heard competing views.
“I knew him in a time, not that long ago, where he was more than capable of doing that,” said Mr Mullen, who has previously raised concerns about retired officers, including Mr Flynn, becoming too political. “He has made the decision that this is what he wants to do. It has nothing to do with his right. It has to do with messages.”
Mr Mullen almost entered the political theatre earlier this year when Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire founder of the eponymous financial information company, chose him as his running mate for a potential independent run. But the former New York mayor ultimately decided not to launch a campaign.
Mr Flynn, a brash Irish-American who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has also attracted scrutiny for his activities in Russia. Critics have questioned his appearances on Russian state television and his presence beside Vladimir Putin at a dinner that some said was a public relations coup for the Russian president.
Mr Mullen said the Russia connections “raise questions” about his relationship with Russia, which the former chairman of the joint chiefs said had clearly tried to interfere with the US elections. US intelligence officials have accused Russia of being behind the hacking of Clinton campaign emails.
But Mr Mullen also praised his former subordinate for his service in Iraq, saying he was instrumental in using intelligence to target al-Qaeda operatives, and in Afghanistan.
“Mike Flynn is both an out of the box and an in the box thinker,” said Mr Mullen, adding that Mr Flynn was a “very creative guy” who had not shown any signs of not treating his subordinates well.
Mr Flynn was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 over concerns about his leadership style. Since stepping down and retiring from the army, he has been a vocal critic of the Obama administration for not going after Isis more aggressively.
In addition to picking Mr Flynn for national security adviser, Mr Trump is considering James Mattis, another retired general, for defence secretary.
“General James “Mad Dog” Mattis, who is being considered for Secretary of Defense, was very impressive yesterday. A true General’s General!” Mr Trump tweeted on Sunday after spending time with the former marine.
Asked if he was worried about the potential militarisation of the new administration, Mr Mullen said he worried more broadly about the “militarisation of the government”.
“There are very few senior military officers that understand politics,” said Mr Mullen. “I do worry about that aspect, can former senior military officers handle the politics of the environment that they are going into. I don’t care what any of them say, they don’t know what they are getting into.”
Mr Mullen suggested that appointing a retired officer as secretary of defence — a move that would require a congressional waiver to circumvent rules aimed at ensuring civilian control of the military — would provide its own challenges. He said he would like to see someone with the “breadth and depth, the strategic reach, the global connections” to occupy the position.
There are very few senior military officers that understand politics. I do worry about that aspect
“That is not to say that there is not a military officer around that couldn’t handle that,” said Mr Mullen. “It is just I think that working in this town, what drives this town, if you don’t have that background or that capability, it is going to make that job much more difficult.”
Pressed on whether he would prefer not to have a former military officer as defence secretary, Mr Mullen said that “I would just like to leave it where it is”.
In recent days, Mr Trump has invited dozens of potential cabinet secretaries to Trump Tower in New York and his golf course in New Jersey, creating a public spectacle that some have said more closely resembles an episode from The Apprentice, the reality TV show in which he starred, than a traditional presidential transition.
On Saturday, the president-elect met Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee and a fierce critic during the campaign, sparking speculation that the former Massachusetts governor might be tapped to serve as secretary of state.
On Monday, he met Tulsi Gabbard, a Democratic congresswoman and veteran who supported Bernie Sanders. While some have speculated that she might be considered for the top diplomatic job, others believe that the ethnic Indian might be asked to serve as the US ambassador to New Delhi.