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Tim Kaine questions judgment of Trump’s pick for national security adviser

Midway through a Senate committee hearing on foreign cyberthreats Thursday, Sen. Tim Kaine took a moment to settle a score against an old nemesis — retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

Kaine (D-Va.), the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in the presidential election in November, lit into President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to be national security adviser for promoting “fake” news stories on social media during the 2016 campaign that “most fourth-graders would find incredible.”

Kaine added: “That a national security adviser would find them believable enough to share them causes me great concern.”

Flynn, who served as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012-2014, was not testifying, and he was not even in the room, but his presence was palpable as the nation’s top intelligence officials briefed lawmakers on the extent of Russia’s efforts to meddle in the U.S. election by hacking into Democrats’ email accounts.

Flynn’s tenure at the DIA ended when he was ousted after clashing with superiors in the Obama administration. His proximity to Trump has made him a key voice of influence over a president-elect who has taken a dismissive and at times demeaning stance toward the U.S. intelligence community. And it has made Flynn a top target of critics who question that perspective.

A Trump transition official said Thursday that the president-elect intends to name former senator Daniel R. Coats (R-Ind.) to be director of national intelligence, overseeing the nation’s 17 spy agencies. But Flynn also is expected to continue playing an important role in how Trump interacts with them.

Unlike Trump’s Cabinet selections, Flynn’s White House role does not require Senate confirmation. But Kaine and other Democrats have cast doubt on Flynn’s judgment, including his push for closer ties with Russia.

GOP leaders have clashed publicly with Trump, insisting that the Russian cyberthreat be taken seriously. Flynn has come under criticism from lawmakers for delivering a paid speech last year for the Kremlin-controlled RT television network in Moscow, where he sat next to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin at a lavish party.

Friends of Flynn’s described him as a decorated former intelligence officer whose blunt manner was not accepted by his former peers, and they called criticism of his views on Russia unwarranted.

“He’s a totally straightforward person,” said Michael Ledeen, a historian at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who co-authored a book with Flynn last year on the fight against Islamic terrorist groups.

“There are a number of false claims about what Flynn said and didn’t say,” Ledeen said. “All these nonsensical stories about Flynn being some kind of tool for Putin, for example — that’s all false. Anybody who looks at what he’s written sees that it’s false. In the book, he calls Putin an ‘evil enemy.’ ”

Once an acclaimed intelligence officer, Flynn was removed from his oversight of the DIA over his criticism of U.S. counterterrorism operations and his efforts to reorganize his agency. Angered by his ouster, Flynn turned into a vocal critic of President Obama, calling him a “liar” during the campaign.

During a fiery speech at the Republican National Convention last summer, Flynn led chants of “lock her up!” aimed at Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server for official purposes while serving as secretary of state.

Robert Blackwill, a deputy national security adviser for President George W. Bush, said during a panel discussion at the Council on Foreign Relations on Thursday that any national security adviser must have a “non-disputatious temperament” to “be fair-minded in presenting options to the president.” He declined to speak directly about Flynn.

A Trump transition representative said in an email that Flynn has had a “decorated career of more than 35 years in service to our nation. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected generals and intelligence officers, and this has been echoed time and again by world renowned national security leaders.”

Trump has refused to receive daily intelligence briefings, and he has publicly dismissed, at times mockingly, the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russian operatives meddled in the U.S. election campaign in an attempt to help him win. He has defended Putin and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, both of whom stand accused of abetting the meddling.

Ahead of the Senate Armed Services hearing Thursday, Trump aimed to moderate his stance, tweeting that he is a “big fan” of “Intelligence” and accusing the news media of unfairly portraying his criticisms.

But James R. Clapper Jr., who has been director of national intelligence since 2010, raised concerns about Trump’s disparaging remarks during his testimony at the hearing, saying it risked eroding public trust and confidence.

Late Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump and his aides were developing plans to scale down the size of the DNI’s office and reorganize the CIA, potentially by pushing more agents out of Washington and into foreign posts.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer denied the story on a conference call with reporters. But Ledeen said the plans align closely with policy changes Flynn advocated in his previous Pentagon job.

“It would certainly be in keeping with what he did in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Ledeen said. “The essence of the changes he made was to get intelligence officers out of their offices in Washington or wherever and out into the field so they could accurately report to their superiors what is going on on the ground.”