Michael Flynn stood in front of a cheering crowd of QAnon believers, far-right extremists and other Trump supporters, and told them he was absolutely certain Donald Trump would remain the president. It was Dec. 12 and Trump had already lost the election, but at a “Stop the Steal” rally in Washington, D.C., Flynn proclaimed “a spiritual battle for the heart and soul of this country” that would end with Trump’s victory.
As three of his siblings applauded behind him, Flynn vowed that the election was not over and that “courts aren’t gonna decide who the next president of the United States is gonna be.” Flynn said Trump trusted his supporters to “not allow what’s happening to happen in our country” and called on them to “fight back” against an alleged plot involving groundless conspiracy theories of election fraud and rigged voting machines.
“Why not look inside these machines? Why? Why not? What are they afraid of? What are they hiding from? They are hiding from something!” Flynn told the crowd.
The December event foreshadowed Trump’s Jan. 6 rally, which led to a far-right mob storming the U.S. Capitol, and many of the same groups were involved, including dark-money nonprofit Women for America First. Violence also followed the first event, with Proud Boys gang members involved in brawls and stabbings that resulted in 33 arrests. The December rally was part of a string of speeches and media appearances, leading up to the January insurrection, in which Flynn lent his voice to the authoritarian movement to keep Trump in office.
Flynn hasn’t faced serious scrutiny for his role in stoking the flames that led to the Capitol riot. Unlike Trump or GOP Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Missouri), Flynn’s efforts to incite took place out of the broader public view, on obscure QAnon podcasts or smaller conservative media outlets that make Fox News look like “60 Minutes.” These appearances were the culmination of a yearslong descent into a realm of conspiracy theorists and the far-right, one where he is a star.
In early 2017, Flynn was one of the most powerful men in the world. After decades in military intelligence, the former three-star lieutenant general had landed the role of Trump’s national security adviser. Four years later, he would appear on conspiracy theorist podcasts with hosts who claim vaccines contain Communist microchips and who interview men that say they’ve had sex with space aliens. In that world, Flynn is something between a saint and a folk hero ― a key figure in the QAnon movement, which believes a secret cabal of international pedophiles controls the country and an anonymous insider known as “Q” is sending out secret instructions to bring the cabal down.
QAnon believers and far-right militias came to believe that Flynn would help them take control. Days after the Dec. 12 rally, the Three Percenters militia threatened action to overturn the election results. “We are ready to enter into battle with General Flynn leading the charge,” one of the largest Three Percenters groups said in a statement on Dec. 16. Multiple Three Percenters would later be charged in connection with the Capitol riot, including a 48-year-old man who allegedly threatened to kill his family if they contacted law enforcement.
Even as Flynn became a symbolic military leader for these extremists, he retained close ties to the president. After his brief stint as national security adviser ended in disgrace, Trump reportedly floated naming him chief of staff or FBI director and hosted him in the Oval Office.
And when Trump pardoned Flynn late last year, he set the former general loose to indulge in QAnon fanfare and promote the same falsehoods that insurrectionists took to the Capitol building.
Descent Into QAnon
Flynn lasted only three weeks as national security adviser before he was forced to resign over his communications with Russia’s ambassador, and less than a year later he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election interference.
After initially agreeing to help prosecutors, Flynn in December 2018 hired Sidney Powell, soon to be infamous nationwide for her wild election theories, to handle his case. His brother Joseph Flynn and sister Barbara Redgate also began making inroads on Flynn’s behalf into QAnon communities and other extremist spaces, apparently as a fundraising gambit. Court records show that as of 2019 Flynn owed around $4.6 million in unpaid legal fees.
His siblings set up a legal defense fund for him in 2017 that actively courted far-right conspiracists. A 2018 benefit for the fund featured speakers including a prominent anti-vaccine activist-turned-QAnon influencer and the founder of the anti-government Oath Keepers militia.
When Flynn emerged with Powell by his side, the two began claiming that he was the victim of injustice and “deep state” plots. Flynn’s new martyr status helped gain him the affection of QAnon believers, whom he increasingly encouraged.
“I wonder to this day whether it is cynical fundraising, trying to crowdsource his legal bill, or how much of this QAnon stuff he actually believes,” said Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab.
On the Fourth of July last year, Flynn posted video of himself performing an apparent “oath” to QAnon and using one of its most notorious slogans. “Where we go one, we go all,” he said, standing in front of a backyard fire pit with five others who repeated after him.
Trump pardoned Flynn on Nov. 25, by which time Flynn was a full-fledged MAGA star and a central part of QAnon’s apocalyptic myth-making.
“As much as a folk hero that he is to the pro-Trump movement, he’s like a deity to QAnon believers. Mike Flynn is apparently clued in to the secret plan to save the world,” Holt said.
QAnon supporters dubbed themselves “Digital Soldiers” after a line in one of his speeches, they held signs proclaiming his innocence at rallies, and a QAnon influencer released an album “inspired by General Mike Flynn” with songs like “ThanQ for the Pain.” Each development in his legal troubles also became part of the movement’s constantly shifting lore, more moves in the chess game that believers saw Trump and Flynn secretly playing.
Trump’s pardon freed Flynn to capitalize on his celebrity status among extremists, including selling QAnon merchandise and launching a Digital Soldiers media company. Following the pardon, Flynn immediately went on a victory lap of pro-Trump and QAnon podcasts to laud their efforts to clear him of the charges he’d pleaded guilty to and to share their conspiratorial beliefs.
“Once he gets his pardon, it’s like he’s been unleashed and he runs straight toward these conspiracy theory outlets,” Holt said. “It almost seems like he’s trying to make himself some sort of media figure, he’s trying to fulfill this role that all these conspiracy theorists think he will fulfill.”
As much as a folk hero that he is to the pro-Trump movement, he’s like a deity to QAnon believers. Mike Flynn is apparently clued in to the secret plan to save the world.
Jared Holt, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab
Flynn’s first post-pardon interview was with the fringe online show Worldview Weekend, where he spread baseless claims of election fraud and insisted that Trump actually won “by a massive landslide and he’ll be inaugurated this January.” Describing the election as “probably the greatest fraud our country has experienced in our history,” Flynn pushed the narrative that the fate of the United States rested on Trump’s ultimate victory.
“This is the time in our history where if we don’t get this right, this country is done. It will be over as we know it,” Flynn told WVW founder Brannon Howse, a far-right conspiracist who recently directed MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell’s election conspiracy infomercial and last year put out an eight-hour-plus film claiming that an Islamist-Marxist plot was underway to overthrow American democracy.
Flynn’s appearance on Howse’s show was followed by a procession of guest spots that highlighted the depth of the former national security adviser’s connection to attempts to overturn the presidential election.
“The American patriots out there are gonna have to stay awake and stay up and push on their system, our system, to correct itself,” Flynn said during a Dec. 1 appearance on the QAnon-affiliated podcast “Bards of War.” Once again he stated without evidence that Trump had easily won the election and he repeated debunked conspiracy theories.
“I understand there’s more dead voters in Pennsylvania than soldiers buried on the hallowed grounds in Gettysburg,” Flynn told “Bards of War” host Scott Kesterson, a QAnon influencer who pleaded guilty in 2017 to stealing thousands of dollars donated to a woman dying of cancer and her family.
“I really appreciate your show and your message,” Flynn told Kesterson, who has claimed that Bill Gates, China and Google are using COVID-19 to create a mass vaccination program with the intent of inserting a microchip in everyone in the world. (In the same episode that Kesterson promoted that conspiracy, he also read out a letter that Flynn had personally addressed to him.)
Flynn received a hero’s welcome in his media appearances, as fawning hosts congratulated him on his pardon and treated him as a kind of prophet. Some QAnon influencers specifically thanked him for lending legitimacy to their cause.
“I was so honored when you followed me [on Twitter]. … That gave me the power. You following me,” a host of the “Matrixxx Groove” podcast told Flynn. “I have been so inspired by you, sir.”
Resisting The Election
During Flynn’s frenzied tour of far-right media, one Dec. 17 interview jumped the tracks into the mainstream conversation.
On Newsmax, Flynn suggested that Trump could seize voting machines and declare martial law in states he lost, claiming that the president “could take military capabilities and he could place them in those states and basically rerun elections.” Flynn also repeatedly warned that a historic injustice was underway that must be stopped, a crisis narrative shared by many of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists.
“We cannot allow this election and the integrity of our election to go the way it is,” Flynn said.
His suggestion of martial law drew immediate backlash, including from top military officials. Then-Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy and Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville issued a joint statement a day after Flynn’s Newsmax appearance to rebut his authoritarian ideas.
“There is no role for the U.S. military in determining the outcome of an American election,” McCarthy and McConville said.
Two days after that interview, Flynn was sitting in the Oval Office.
Flynn, along with Sidney Powell, former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne and former Trump administration official Emily Newman, reportedly tried to convince Trump that he could still win and to grant them top-secret national security clearances. The meeting became heated as White House staff and legal counsel faced off against the conspiracists, and Flynn accused senior adviser Eric Herschmann of giving up on Trump.
“You’re quitting! You’re a quitter! You’re not fighting!” Flynn yelled at Herschmann, according to Axios.
Despite Flynn demanding that “we need fighters” and his group insisting that the election could still be overturned, they left empty-handed. But Flynn’s rally circuit didn’t stop. He popped up in the nation’s capital again the day before the riot, on Jan. 5, proclaiming that “Washington, D.C., has forgotten what it means to be an American patriot.” Flynn thanked his “Digital Soldiers” during the speech and warned Congress that the crowd would be there on Jan. 6 to fight the certification of election results.
“We want you to know that we will not stand for a lie. We will not stand for a lie!” Flynn said to cheers.
After The Riot
Flynn has kept a low profile since the siege at the Capitol, in part because Twitter removed him, his sister and thousands of other QAnon-affiliated accounts after the riot. (Joseph Flynn, who has appeared on a QAnon-affiliated podcast at least nine times in the past year alone, retained his account with its hundreds of thousands of followers. He recently responded “no idea crazy” when another user asked why he hadn’t been suspended.)
The riot and President Joe Biden’s subsequent inauguration have also thrown QAnon into disarray. Many QAnon supporters watched in disbelief as Biden peacefully took the oath of office while Trump and Flynn did not lead a military roundup of the Obamas, Clintons and Bidens that ended with mass executions. Some lost faith entirely, while on platforms such as Telegram, others tried to concoct new myths to sustain their alternate reality.
“Q was right about a lot of things, but there’s no one coming to fix it. Trump was outmatched,” one user wrote on a popular QAnon Telegram channel.
Other users had other theories. “Trump is not in charge FLYNN is,” one wrote.
Flynn finally emerged in early February, appearing on “The Right Side with Doug Billings” podcast. Flynn sounded dejected, claiming that Trump had been betrayed and that the Republican Party had “stabbed him right in the heart.” He urged people to pray and become involved in local politics, and he tried to distance himself from QAnon theories. When Billings asked if Trump had invoked the Insurrection Act ― in order to use the military to seize control of the country ― Flynn responded that was “nonsense.”
“There’s no plan. There’s so many people out there asking, ‘Is the plan happening?’” Flynn said. “We have what we have, and we have to accept the situation as it is.
I was devastated by Gen. Flynn’s comments until he told you, Doug, to hold onto that bottle of wine. That gave me hope again.
A social media commenter speaking about Flynn’s remarks after Inauguration Day
But he didn’t outright disavow QAnon or admit that Biden had legitimately won the election. When Billings asked if he owed a neighbor a bottle of wine for losing a bet that Trump would be victorious, Flynn told him otherwise.
“I’d say hold onto that bottle of wine. I would not concede that bottle of wine,” Flynn said.
If the former general sounded like he may have been joking, that wasn’t how QAnon supporters heard it. True believers, already primed to see the world in code, began to fixate on Flynn’s wine comment as proof that he was speaking to them, urging them to keep going.
“I was devastated by Gen. Flynn’s comments until he told you, Doug, to hold onto that bottle of wine. That gave me hope again,” one social media commenter said.
“I think it’s another chess move,” someone else posted.
Two days later, Billings had conspiracy theorist Simon Parkes on his show to explain that Flynn wasn’t rejecting QAnon at all but instead had to conceal his real beliefs. Parkes, who openly claims that his “real mother” was a 9-foot-tall green space alien and that he fathered a child with an extraterrestrial he calls “the Cat Queen,” said that Flynn had subtly signaled to QAnon followers that everything was going to plan.
“I was very impressed with your bottle of wine,” Parkes said. “That was a fantastic way for him to give us information without breaking any rules or regulations.”
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