By Michelle R. Smith | Associated Press
BATAVIA, N.Y. — The crowd swayed on its feet, arms pumping, the beat of Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” thumping in their chests. The people under the revival tent hooted as Michael Flynn strode across the stage, bopping and laughing, singing the refrain into his microphone and encouraging the audience to sing along to the transgressive rock anthem.
“We’ll fight the powers that be just/Don’t pick our destiny ’cause/You don’t know us, you don’t belong!”
The emcee introduced him as “America’s General,” but to those in the audience, Flynn is far more than that: martyr, hero, leader, patriot, warrior.
The retired lieutenant general, former national security adviser, onetime anti-terrorism fighter, is now focused on his next task: building a movement centered on Christian nationalist ideas, where Christianity is at the center of American life and institutions.
Flynn brought his fight — a struggle he calls both spiritual and political — last month to a church in Batavia, New York, where thousands of people paid anywhere from a few dollars to up to $500 to hear and absorb his message that the United States is facing an existential threat, and that to save the nation, his supporters must act.
Flynn, 63, has used public appearances to energize voters, along with political endorsements to build alliances and a network of nonprofit groups — one of which has projected spending $50 million — to advance the movement, an investigation by The Associated Press and the PBS series “Frontline” has found. He has drawn together election deniers, mask and vaccine opponents, insurrectionists, Proud Boys, and elected officials and leaders in state and local Republican parties. Along the way, the AP and “Frontline” documented, Flynn and his companies have earned hundreds of thousands of dollars for his efforts.
This story is part of an ongoing investigation from The Associated Press and “Frontline” that includes the upcoming documentary “Michael Flynn’s Holy War,” premiering Oct. 18 on PBS and online.
The AP and “Frontline” spoke with more than 60 people, including Flynn’s family, friends, opponents, and current and former colleagues, for this story. The news organizations also reviewed campaign finance records, corporate and charity filings, social media posts and similar open-source information, and attended several public events where Flynn appeared. Reporters examined dozens of Flynn’s speeches, interviews and public appearances. Flynn himself sat down for a rare on-camera interview with what he calls the mainstream media.
“I don’t even know why I’m talking to you, honestly,” Flynn said as the interview got underway.
Throughout 2021 and 2022, Flynn made more than 60 in-person speeches in 24 states, according to a count by the AP and “Frontline.” When he speaks, the former top adviser to then-President Donald Trump spreads baseless conspiracy theories, stoking fear and fueling anger and division and grievance.
Flynn is “one of the most dangerous individuals in America today,” said Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian and expert on authoritarianism and fascism who wrote the book “Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present.”
“He is spearheading the attack on our democracy, which is coming from many quarters, and he is affiliated with many of these sectors, from the military to Christian nationalism to election denial to extremist groups,” she said. “All of this comes together to present a very live threat. And he’s at the center.”
Flynn has, with mixed success, supported like-minded candidates around the country, and has said his immediate goal is to influence this year’s elections. In Sarasota, Florida, where he lives, he has worked in concert with members of the extremist group the Proud Boys to influence local politics. Their favored candidates in August won control of the county school board.
“Local action has a national impact” is his mantra.
“We need to take this country back one town at a time, one county at a time, one state at a time, if that’s what it takes,” he told a crowd in Salt Lake City.
THE ULTIMATE INSIDER
Flynn’s advocacy of falsehoods and conspiracy theories hardly makes him unique in a fact-challenged America, but his pedigree, military career and high-powered Washington contacts set him apart. He’s a retired three-star general who less than two decades ago developed wartime strategies for countering insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His selection as Trump’s first national security adviser made him the ultimate insider, giving him nominal control — if only for a matter of weeks — of the administration’s national security strategy. When he later found himself in legal trouble on suspicion that he had lied to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States, he cooperated with the same government establishment he now crusades against.
In the weeks after the November 2020 presidential election, Flynn picked up a presidential pardon — granted to forgive his guilty plea to lying to the FBI. He immediately became a chief promoter of the “Stop the Steal” effort and championed bogus claims about foreign interference and ballot tampering that weren’t supported by credible evidence. But for some voters, Flynn’s status as a retired general and top intelligence officer gave weight to the empty theories.
He falsely said Trump won, called the election outcome part of “a coup in progress,” suggested Trump should seize voting machines and said Trump could order up the military in some states and rerun the election. In December 2020 he even made his way into the Oval Office to push his ideas directly to Trump.
Called before a congressional committee investigating the Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, Flynn refused to say whether he believed the violence was justified or even whether he believed in the peaceful transition of power. He invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to incriminate himself.
Retired Brig. Gen. Steven M. Anderson, who served with Flynn in Iraq, called Flynn’s ideas antithetical to core values of the American military and the nation itself.
Anderson worries that Flynn is “a role model for thousands and thousands and thousands of soldiers and former soldiers,” and that his ideas can empower them to take actions that hurt the country.
“We’ve got a retired three-star, former NSA, who says we can overthrow the election, use our military,” Anderson said. The thinking goes, he said, “Well, then yes, sign me up for the Proud Boys.”
Flynn uses the three stars he earned in the military as his symbol, a shorthand that reminds people he came from the highest levels of the nation’s power structure — and that suggests he has a special knowledge of how things work in the shadowy world of Washington and global affairs.
“It’s a crying shame that essentially he has evolved into the person he is now,” said Anderson, who described his former colleague as a “subservient buffoon that unfortunately has forsaken his oath of office.”
Doug Wise, a former CIA and military officer who knew Flynn for decades and briefly served as Flynn’s deputy at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said even in the military, Flynn often pushed the envelope of what was permissible and demonstrated “extreme thinking.” He believes Flynn hasn’t transformed, he’s just become more comfortable acting on the anger that burns inside him.
“I understand the reasons why he gravitated to the right wing because as his behavior and beliefs became more bizarre, I think they were very welcoming. Because who wouldn’t want a highly respected Army three-star to join your group?” Wise said.
“I think he believed, post-government, and he was right in this … that he was too well-connected to fail,” Wise said. “And he got pardoned.”
Flynn sees conspiracies in just about every corner of American life.
He’s repeated falsehoods about Black Lives Matter and said that so-called globalists created COVID-19. He tells the tens of thousands of people who have paid to see him speak that there are 75 members of the Socialist Party in Congress, and has said the left and Democrats are trying to destroy the country. He asserts, above all else, that the United States was founded on Judeo-Christian values. The bedrock, he warns, is crumbling.
The country, Flynn often says in speeches and interviews, is in the midst of a “spiritual war,” and he goes after many of the institutions and ideas that stand as pillars of American democracy.
He has told audiences he doesn’t trust the U.S. government or government institutions that oversee the rule of law. He called the media “the No. 1 enemy” and said it has done a “horrible, horrible disservice to the country by just constantly lying and trying to deceive us.” He says elementary schools are teaching “filth” and “pornography.” He continues to assert, ignoring all evidence to the contrary, that elections can’t be trusted. He says, over and over, that some of his fellow Americans are “evil.”
“They dress like us and they talk like us, but they don’t think and act like us,” he told a podcaster recently. “And they definitely do not want what it is that we want.”
Survey data shows many Americans believe what Flynn says — that the 2020 election was stolen — and have bought into COVID-19 misinformation and other conspiracy theories that he spreads, said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who studies the evangelical movement.
“Any of these factors alone could be considered dangerous. But all of them together and the distrust it is sowing in our democracy,” Du Mez said. “I think it’s extremely dangerous in this moment.”
She points to Flynn’s role as headliner of a multicity roadshow known as the ReAwaken America tour, an event that is a potent mix of politics, religion and commerce that has become a prime example of the Christian nationalist movement.
Flynn helped found the tour in 2021 with Clay Clark, an entrepreneur from Oklahoma who had been running business conferences before the pandemic. In his interview with the AP and “Frontline” in February, Flynn said he considered himself a “senior leader” of the team that’s running it.
The thread of Christian nationalism runs through many of Flynn’s events. At one fundraiser, a preacher prayed over him saying that America would stay a Christian nation and that Flynn was “heavy armaments” in the Lord’s quiver. At the Christian Patriot’s Rally at a church in Northern California, Flynn was presented with an assault-style rifle on stage. In Virginia in July, he said pastors “need to be talking about the Constitution from the pulpit as much as the Bible.” In Texas last November, Flynn told a crowd “this is a moment in time where this is good versus evil.”
“If we are going to have one nation under God, which we must, we have to have one religion. One nation under God, and one religion under God, right?” he said.
Christian nationalism seeks to merge the identity of Christians and Americans, so that to be a “true” American is to be Christian — and a certain type of Christian. The ideology pushes the idea that the United States was founded on biblical principles and has a favored relationship with a Christian God, said Samuel Perry, a sociologist at the University of Oklahoma who studies conservative Christianity and politics.
It is distinct from the practice of Christianity, and Perry’s research has found that many Americans who are inclined toward Christian nationalism don’t go to church.
“This has nothing to do with Christian orthodoxy. It has nothing to do with loving Jesus or wanting to be a good disciple or loving your neighbor or self-sacrifice or anything like that,” Perry said. “It has everything to do with Christian ethno-culture and specifically white Christian ethno-culture.”
Flynn casts himself as a victim of “the deep state” who paid a steep price for supporting Trump. Besides Trump, his supporters say, no one has been persecuted more than Flynn.
Flynn’s rhetoric — us versus them, good versus evil, the idea that God is on “our” side — has been a staple among conservative Christians for decades, and is mainstream in conservative evangelicalism, Du Mez said.
The thinking, she said, can fuel violence.
“They’re out to get us. Therefore, we need to strike first. And the threat is always dire,” Du Mez says the thinking goes. “And if the threat is dire, then the ends justify the means.”
“These values are not unconnected from the violence that we saw on Jan. 6,” she added.
(When the AP and “Frontline” asked Flynn in February if he is ascribes to Christian nationalist views, he dodged. He first asked what the term meant, then said he was “an Irish Catholic” then a “follower of Jesus,” before criticizing the reporter: “That was a stupid question to ask me,” he said, “because that means that you really have not studied Mike Flynn.”)
Last October, Flynn was the star attraction at the WeCANAct Liberty Conference, a gathering in Salt Lake City for Utah’s Platform Republicans PAC.
The program included dozens of speakers and exhibitors talking about a grab bag of ideas and causes that have seized and panicked the right — about vaccines, human trafficking, elections and the QAnon conspiracy theory.
Among the sponsors and exhibitors were the John Birch Society; businesses selling everything from texting services for political campaigns to food dehydrators; Ammon Bundy’s anti-government People’s Rights group; and America’s Frontline Doctors, which has spread false information about COVID-19 and promoted unproven treatments such as ivermectin, a drug used to treat parasitic infections. State lawmakers from Arizona and Utah spoke, and members of the Utah Republican Party’s governing committee were among the organizers.
The program kicked off with an invocation by a preacher who brought the crowd to its feet as he described a “prophecy” of a “Great Awakening” where “Americans are going to rise up and defeat the cabal.”
“We are in a spiritual war, and you can’t win a war without attacking,” he said.
The preacher ended by leading the crowd in what he called a “new version of the Lord’s Prayer that fits the Great Awakening.” The crowd repeated after him as he said: “Deliver us from the cabal, and from Satan’s influence. For yours is the kingdom, and the power and the glory. Forever and ever and ever. Amen.”
Flynn appeared a few times throughout the day, at one point sitting in the audience. Across the Salt Palace Convention Center, people jostled their seatmates to point him out and craned their necks to see him.
That evening, he gave a meandering speech that he referred to as “an ass-chewing from a general.” He falsely declared once again that Trump had won the 2020 election, said “our government is corrupt,” and called for the FBI to be abolished, a surprising applause line in October 2021 that has now being taken up more broadly by some Republicans.
He called the left “our enemies” and said they are “godless” and “soulless.”
One of Flynn’s companies, Resilient Patriot LLC, was paid $58,000 by the conference. An AP and “Frontline” review of state and federal campaign finance filings documented nearly $300,000 in payments to Flynn and his businesses from candidates and political action committees since 2021, for things such as speaking fees, travel, book sales and campaign consulting. (Florida congressional candidate Laura Loomer reported paying his company $1,100 in May for public relations services.)
After Flynn’s keynote concluded, a podcaster helping to wrap things up for the evening came onstage and called him “one of the new founding fathers of this republic.”
As Flynn speaks and stumps to persuade people to join his movement, he has also been busy building a network of political candidates at the federal, state and local levels.
The AP and “Frontline” found that Flynn has endorsed 99 candidates for the 2022 election cycle. (He subsequently withdrew a handful.)
The country’s most influential Republican is paying attention. Flynn’s brother Joseph told an interviewer in May that during a visit the Flynns made to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate this spring, Trump himself produced a list comparing the success of his endorsed candidates with Flynn’s.
At least 80% of Flynn’s chosen candidates have publicly spread lies or sown doubt about Trump’s 2020 loss to Democrat Joe Biden, or even participated in efforts to overthrow the election, the AP and “Frontline” found. Several have suggested they would use their power if elected to change the way elections are run and how people are allowed to cast their vote.
About two dozen were at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 5-6, 2021.
One-third have served in the military.
At least 38 have used Christian nationalist rhetoric. Keith Self, a congressional candidate in Texas, has said he’s running for Congress ” to defend the Judeo-Christian foundations of this nation.” Christine Villaverde, a congressional candidate in North Carolina, has vowed to fight to keep America “a Christian nation.” Anthony Sabatini, a Florida state lawmaker who just lost a bid for Congress, recently posted on Facebook, “Only when Christians stand up & get loud, will we take this country back.”
Flynn’s support can be a sought-after prize. An AP and “Frontline” analysis of Facebook and Instagram ad data found ads from more than 20 candidates promoting their endorsements. Jackson Lahmeyer, an Oklahoma pastor who was defeated in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate by Sen. James Lankford, mentioned Flynn in 48 Facebook and Instagram ads, more than one-quarter of his total buy on the platforms.
Pastor Leon Benjamin, a Republican candidate for Congress in Virginia who denounced homosexuality and called gay marriages illegal in an August speech, said in an interview that Flynn’s endorsement represents “that affirmation and that understanding that we’ve got to have the right candidates in, and it’s not always popular, not always goes along with the grain.”
“If we keep doing the same things over and over again, that’s the definition of insanity,” he added. “So we got to do some different things to get different results.”
More than 40 of Flynn’s endorsements were for candidates seeking state or even local posts, the AP and “Frontline” found. Flynn endorsed two school board contenders in Camdenton, Missouri, candidates for sheriff in Florida, Nevada and Illinois and a city council candidate in North Carolina. He endorsed candidates for the state legislature in Michigan, Ohio, Arizona, Florida, Texas and Missouri. In Arizona, Michigan, California and Colorado, he gave his approval to candidates for secretary of state, a position that typically involves the administration of elections.
A dozen gubernatorial candidates won Flynn’s backing, including Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee, Doug Mastriano, a state lawmaker whom Flynn introduced at his campaign launch. Mastriano, a retired U.S. Army colonel, floated a plan to undo Biden’s victory in his state, organized buses to the U.S. Capitol for Jan. 6 and was filmed walking past barricades and police lines that day. Mastriano has denied breaking the law and has not been charged with any crimes. Another Flynn endorsee, Dan Cox, who also organized buses for Jan. 6, won the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Maryland.
Still, Flynn’s endorsement doesn’t guarantee a win. Josh Mandel, the Ohio U.S. Senate candidate, was defeated by JD Vance, who got a late endorsement from Trump. Some Flynn-backed candidates, including gubernatorial candidate Joey Gilbert in Nevada and Colorado secretary of state candidate Tina Peters, made baseless claims of election fraud after they lost.
Flynn and his allies have suggested he wants to get back into government, and the growing influence that flows from the network he’s building may help him get there, said Ron Filipkowski, a lawyer in Sarasota and longtime Republican activist who now tracks Flynn and other far-right figures online.
“He’s going to build this grassroots movement, local elected officials beholden to him, loyal to him,” Filipkowski said.
FINANCING ELECTION DENIAL
Flynn has expanded his influence further through well-financed groups that advocate, among other things, changes to the way elections are run, based on the false premise that there is widespread voting fraud.
Flynn and Patrick Byrne, founder of Overstock.com, last year launched The America Project, with Flynn’s brother Joseph as president. The group said it planned to spend $50 million in the 2021 budget year, according to a filing with North Carolina charity regulators. But Joseph Flynn and Byrne separately told AP that it had spent tens of millions less, though each gave different totals.
While Flynn himself is not listed among its officers, he is the face of the group, and it’s described as “General Flynn and Patrick Byrne’s America Project.” Byrne says Flynn is his closest adviser, telling the AP and “Frontline” that Flynn is his “Yoda” and “rabbi.”
In April 2021, Flynn was named chairman of America’s Future, one of the country’s oldest conservative nonprofit groups. The organization was founded in 1946 and was previously led by ultra-conservative stalwarts, including Phyllis Schlafly and retired Maj. Gen. John Singlaub. Since Flynn took over, the group hired his sister, Mary O’Neill, as executive director and appointed Joseph Flynn to its board of directors. The group had about $3 million in assets at the end of 2020, its most recent IRS filings show. Flynn told the AP and “Frontline” in February that he had raised an estimated $1.7 million for America’s Future since becoming chairman.
The two groups worked in close coordination last year, together donating more than $4.2 million for a widely criticized and misinformation-driven review of the 2020 presidential election results commissioned by Arizona Republicans.
The America Project has given about $5 million to “grassroots organizations” around the country, Joseph Flynn said in a July appearance on an online show.
Many of the groups they support back what they call “election integrity,” a term often used by election deniers to justify making it more difficult to vote based on the falsehood that American elections are corrupt.
Campaign finance records show The America Project has given more than $150,000 to Conservatives for Election Integrity, a group that has supported several secretary of state candidates who have worked to undermine trust in 2020 election results.
The America Project gave $100,000 to a Colorado group, Citizens for Election Integrity, which used it for ads and text messages attacking a Republican candidate for secretary of state who ran against Flynn’s endorsed candidate. In Michigan, The America Project gave $100,000 in May to Secure MI Vote, which has reportedly pushed to roll back voter access.
In Georgia, they just announced they’re backing an effort to challenge voter registrations for tens of thousands of people.
Joseph Flynn said during a speech in May that The America Project also funded and advised many of what he termed “audits” of elections around the country, including in Georgia, Michigan and Wisconsin, though he did not give specifics.
In February, Flynn stood in a burger joint in Orlando, Florida, to announce The America Project’s most public initiative, “Operation Eagles Wings,” the goal of which is to mobilize and train poll watchers and precinct captains, and to drive get-out-the-vote efforts.
“I think every single person in this country, every American citizen, now has to pay attention to politics. You know, when people go, ‘I don’t get involved. I don’t do that political stuff. That’s for the politicians.’ Well, that’s exactly why we are here. OK?” Flynn told the AP and “Frontline” during a contentious interview. “So, it’s something else that you won’t write or speak about or it’ll be edited out.”
As part of Operation Eagles Wings, The America Project has created affiliate groups in at least nine states. Its Florida affiliate said in a Facebook post last month it’s seeking “America First Poll Watchers” and will train organizations for free. State affiliates in Illinois and Virginia advertised trainings in July and August on grassroots social activism, poll watching and how to get out the vote. The promotions also promise to teach attendees to “expose weaknesses,” “monitor and evaluate absentee voting” and conduct “investigative canvassing.”
The initiative has raised alarm bells with pro-democracy advocates.
“If people who tried to overturn the 2020 election, or who are fueled by election conspiracies, are trying to recruit their followers or allies to be election workers or volunteers as part of an election denial agenda, that poses real risks to fair and free elections,” said Jacek Pruski, of the nonpartisan group Protect Democracy.
With his speeches, endorsements and outreach groups, Flynn has built a legion of acolytes who are listening closely to what he says and are ready to take action. They include Karen Ballash, 69, vice chair of the Summit County Republican Party in Utah, who heard Flynn speak in Salt Lake City.
“I totally believe in his message. We have to be the ones who make the change,” she said. “If we don’t do it, we won’t have a country.”
They include neophytes like Delainna Prettyman, who said she’s just become politically engaged in the past year. “That sent me deep down a rabbit hole. I don’t watch any news, any TV, anything. And I do a ton of research,” said Prettyman, who lives in the Salt Lake City suburbs.
She came to love Flynn, and believed “everything he says.”
“He’s got a lot of intel and insight about everything that’s going on. Of course, he can’t say everything,” she said. “We need more people like General Flynn.”
Under the tent in Batavia, the crowd thrilled to Flynn’s pronouncements from the stage. The general they claim as their own confirmed their feeling that the U.S. is changing, and not for the better. He validated the belief that the community they have built together is under attack.
They know many people — some of their very own friends and loved ones, and even Biden — say they are a destructive force. But inside the tent, Flynn assured them, they have found their tribe and they are in the right.
“We’re not alone in this is what I’m telling you. OK? We’re not alone in what it is that we are doing,” Flynn said. “We’re not alone. I want you to know that.”
Associated Press writers Richard Lardner, Eric Tucker, Helen Wieffering, and Aaron Kessler, photographer Carolyn Kaster, and “Frontline” producers Richard Rowley and Paul Abowd contributed to this report.
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