MIDDLETOWN, R.I. — Former national security adviser Michael Flynn, at the center of multiple probes into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election, seeks sanctuary from the swirling eddy of news coverage in the beach town where he grew up surfing and skateboarding, one of nine siblings crammed into a 1,200-square foot house.
Middletown is his refuge and the ocean is his therapy, and he's spent recent weeks here surfing and figuring out his path forward, according to friends and family members. They say the man they have known since his childhood here in the 1960s and 1970s — the student body president who rose from a start in Army ROTC to the rank of lieutenant general — isn't the same man they see portrayed in news reports.
“Have you seen that in the news? They talk about Mike as a traitor? The thought of that is absolutely insane to me,” said older brother Jack.
Forced from government service into retirement in 2014 by the Obama administration, Flynn went on to set up a company that accepted speaking fees from Russian entities and later did consulting work for a Turkish-owned business. He joined the Trump campaign and then the administration, but the Trump White House ousted him after saying he mischaracterized conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. A wide range of his actions — including foreign contracts and payments, and whether he lied to officials — are under scrutiny by investigators.
Thomas A. Heaney Jr., a retired Army colonel who has known Flynn since they were 9 years old, said Flynn has been doing well and has begun work again as a consultant after shutting down his old firm.
“He knows that most of the allegations in terms of the way they were presented were sensationalized and are not true,” said Heaney, who lives in the area and has seen Flynn several times this summer, most recently at Fourth of July parties. “He's got his head up. He knows he's a good servant. He's a patriot and he didn't deserve to be treated the way he's being treated, but he's not letting that overwhelm him.”
Middletown could even become his permanent base, Heaney said. Flynn and his wife, Lori, who started dating as high school sophomores, grew up here and have deep family ties in the area.
Michael Flynn, the sixth of Helen and Charlie Flynn's nine children, was born at Fort Meade, in Maryland, where his father was posted with the U.S. Army. Charlie eventually retired as a master sergeant after a 20-year career, then started a banking career in Newport, an island community with a strong military presence and reputation as a rich people's playground.
They packed the family into the tiny seaside cottage once owned by Michael's grandmother in blue-collar Middletown. Flynn writes in his book, “The Field of Fight,” of the “never-ending revolving search to nab one of a few fold-up cots or a bunk bed that was open.”
Allen Corcoran grew up as best friends with Flynn's youngest brother, Charlie, now an Army major general, who's second-in-command over Army forces in the Pacific. Corcoran recalled one night during a sleepover at the Flynn household when he fell asleep in a bed and woke up on a couch. An older Flynn wanted the bed and moved him.
“It was like a bunkhouse really. That's how Helen ran it,” Jack Flynn said.
Helen Flynn was deeply involved in Democratic politics, from local to gubernatorial campaigns, even the presidential campaign of George McGovern. She had given up her scholarship spot at Brown University to get married and raise a family, but once the children were older, she taught at a secretarial school, went back to school to get economics and law degrees, and became a real estate agent.
Michael's younger brother Joe said there was constant discussion in the house of what was going on in the world, and a constant swapping of opinions.
“We were encouraged to speak our mind. We were encouraged to study the world. We were encouraged to be up-to-speed on political affairs going on around the country,” Joe Flynn said. “Clearly, you grow up in that kind of household, you know your life is going to be still involved in that as you get older.”
Growing up so close to the ocean, the Flynns became strong swimmers and surfers. Sid Abbruzzi, a celebrated surfer who ran a surf shop on the beach about 200 yards from the Flynn house, remembers a raucous environment at their house, where siblings would squabble about who took whose wetsuit.
“Those guys had shaggy hair, and rock ‘n’ roll, and riding the waves, and skate boarding and playing sports too. ... The family surf-skate connection is blood,” he said. “It is sort of ‘70s, loosey-goosey style, and Mike grew up in that culture.”
The cottage had a clear view of Ruggles, a well-known surfing spot that breaks below Newport's famous Gilded Age mansion, The Breakers.
“People would call us all the time and say, ‘What's the surf like at Ruggles?’” Joe Flynn said. “My mother would give them the surf check.”
Michael became known for his skateboarding style and boldness in the water.
“He would surf tough spots in the middle of December. He'd go out in circumstances where others wouldn't do it,” Corcoran said.
Friends remember him as a leader, someone who inspired others. At age 13, Michael made the front page of the local newspaper when he saved two toddlers playing in the path of a runaway car that was rolling downhill.
“He treated everybody the same, no matter what neighborhood you grew up in, you had a shot with Mike,” Corcoran said. “If some kid was being neglected or wasn't very popular, Mike would take him under his wing and kind of help the kid along. He was kind of one of those guys.”
He was also popular: Flynn was Middletown High School's student body president, co-captain of the football team and voted “best looking” in his high school yearbook.
There were also hard times. Michael was in elementary school when his oldest sister, Lennie, was in a car crash while driving home from college in Providence. She spent 80 days in a coma before passing away.
“It was just a terrible, terrible time. And it left a big mark on the family for a while, actually forever. Forever, right? It doesn't really go away,” Joe Flynn said.
Another turning point came when Michael, then a teenager, ran into trouble that landed him in a night of juvenile detention and a year of probation. In his book, Flynn describes himself as “one of those nasty tough kids, hell-bent on breaking rules for the adrenaline rush and hardwired just enough to not care about the consequences.”
Flynn wrote that his “misguided mindset” led to his arrest — he doesn't say what he did — and that the sentence was “no comparison to the punishment at home.”
“The light switch went on in his head,” Joe Flynn said. “It also helped him be who he is. It humbled him.”
After an academically bad start at the University of Rhode Island, Flynn entered the ROTC program there, something Joe called “the greatest thing that ever happened to him.” He entered the Army as an intelligence officer after graduating.
Flynn had planned to return to the private sector after the presidential campaign, his brothers said. Instead, President Donald Trump asked him to be national security adviser, a job he reluctantly accepted, they said.
“I know for sure that he at first said no. ‘I don't want to accept that position.’ And he said to me, ‘It's a tough one to say no to when you're pressed. When you've gone that far. So I said OK.’ Finally, he said OK,” Jack Flynn said.
Jack Flynn said he doesn't know whether his brother regrets that decision. “I don't think he expected his life to get blown up like this,” said Joe Flynn.
These days, Michael is in “recuperation mode.” The same week that former FBI Director James Comey testified before the Senate's intelligence committee, Joe said, Michael was surfing with his sister at a beach near the house he built here years ago, in the same neighborhood where they grew up.
Jack Flynn, who lives in the area, said people come up to his brother all the time to express support. In his view, Michael's silence is driving people in Washington crazy.
“And I hope he waits till the moment comes for him to talk. I'm so glad he's doing exactly what he's doing for himself, which is staying mentally healthy and physically fit and taking care of the things that really matter to him and his life right now,” Jack Flynn said.
Heaney said he's confident Flynn will be fully exonerated and will move on with his life. Flynn, he said, has a positive outlook, and knows he is welcome in Middletown.
“He feels at home here and he knows he has a base of support here,” Heaney said. “People here, they know the mettle of Mike Flynn.”
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