The self-serving Michael Flynn resignation letter is mostly fluff

Photo: Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

Michael Flynn resigned yesterday as Donald Trump’s national security advisor. Media reports stated that he’d lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the content of his pre-inauguration conversations with the Russian Ambassador. Resignation letters should take responsibility, apologize, and say nothing further — but Flynn’s is strangely full of fluffy praise for Trump.

Flynn’s letter is mostly misdirection

Here’s the full text of the 324-word letter, with weasel words highlighted, and my analysis and translation:

February 13, 2017

In the course of my duties as the Incoming National Security Advisor, I held numerous phone calls with foreign counterparts, ministers, and ambassadors. These calls were to facilitate a smooth transition and begin to build the necessary relationships between the President, his advisors and foreign leaders. Such calls are standard practice in any transition of this magnitude.

Unfortunately, because of the fast pace of events, I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador. I have sincerely apologized to the president and the Vice President, and they have accepted my apology.

Analysis: Before Trump was inaugurated, Flynn apparently spoke about sanctions on Russia with the Ambassador, but conducting diplomacy when you’re not yet in the government is illegal. Then, speaking to Pence, he denied having done that, although the FBI had listened in the conversations and knew otherwise. Apologies for wrongdoing should be clear, sincere, and without self-justification and hedges. Instead, Flynn excuses his actions by citing the fast pace of his work and using words like “inadvertent” and “incomplete.” A public resignation is no place for excuses.

Translation: I should not have spoken about sanctions to the Russian Ambassador before our administration took office. I shouldn’t have concealed that from Vice President Pence, either. I’m sorry I violated the rules.

Throughout my over thirty three years of honorable military service, and my tenure as the National Security Advisor, I have always performed my duties with the utmost of integrity and honesty to those I have served, to include the President of the United States.

I am tendering my resignation, honored to have served our nation and the American people in such a distinguished way.

Analysis: I’m sure this is emotional for Flynn, but a public resignation letter is no place for restating what a great job you did. Or for grammatical errors (“. . . those I have served, to include the President. . . “)

Translation: I made a serious mistake, so I have resigned.

I am also extremely honored to have served President Trump, who in just three weeks, has reoriented American foreign policy in fundamental ways to restore America’s leadership position in the world.

Analysis: No one changes American foreign policy completely in three weeks, unless they start a war. This passage is irrelevant in a resignation letter — the praise of an official resigning in shame is of little value. While there is no way to know, I bet that someone else on Trump’s staff insisted on including this.

Translation: My error should not reflect on the efforts of President Trump.

As I step away once again from serving my nation in this current capacity, I wish to thank President Trump for his personal loyalty, the friendship of those who I worked with throughout the hard fought campaign, the challenging period of transition, and during the early days of his presidency.

Analysis: While it sounds like Flynn and Trump had good times together, this doesn’t belong in a public resignation letter.

Translation: We had a blast while it lasted.

I know with the strong leadership of President Donald J. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence and the superb team they are assembling, this team will go down in history as one of the greatest presidencies in U.S history, and I firmly believe the American people will be well served as they all work together to help Make America Great Again.

Analysis: Only Trump’s team would feel there is any value in ham-handed praise such as this in a resignation letter. This passage may be intended to reassure the public that the rest of the team is solid, but in this context, it has the opposite effect. And really, “will go down in history as one of the greatest presidencies in U.S. history?” Did they write this in 15 minutes, and did anyone proofread it?

Translation: [Shouting while being carried off the field] Go team!

Michael T. Flynn, LTG (Ret)

Assistant to the President/ National Security Advisor

Resignation letters and apologies should be clear, sincere, and short

Here’s a fundamental truth: If you’re resigning for doing something wrong, everything you say publicly that is self-serving or in praise of the organization is counterproductive. You and your opinion are immediately tainted. This is why brevity matters, and self-justification is worse than worthless.

Here’s the version of this letter we should have read:

February 13, 2017

President Trump:

I have appreciated the opportunity to serve you, even for such a short time.

I should not have spoken about sanctions to the Russian Ambassador before our administration took office. I shouldn’t have concealed that conversation from Vice President Pence, either. I’m sorry I violated the rules.

I made a serious mistake, so I am resigning.

Michael T. Flynn, LTG (Ret)

Assistant to the President/ National Security Advisor

That’s 72 words, and it’s all that’s necessary. 78% of Flynn’s letter is counterproductive fluff.

I look forward to the opportunity to analyze many more resignation letters from the Trump administration. I’m certain they can do better.

6 responses to “The self-serving Michael Flynn resignation letter is mostly fluff

  1. “conducting diplomacy when you’re not yet in the government is illegal.” -this, if true, calls for more than a letter of apology but can anyone conduct diplomacy without having a formal position?

  2. Acting on behalf of the government when you are not the government is not possible — but you can get pretty close if you represent the incoming administration. That’s the problem — it undermines the lame duck president.

  3. I am hoping that members of this “administration” get lots of practice writing resignation letters. In corollary, I hope you get lots of practice reviewing such letters.

    No matter how much “praising President Trump” was included in Flynn’s letter, you’re right, it had the opposite effect, at least on me. What I heard was, “I’m a lying loser who broke the rules and I am representative of one of the ‘great’ leadership team assembled by the President. Trust them, as you and he trusted me.”

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