As questions mounted Thursday about whether Michael Flynn used his position as Donald Trump’s No. 1 foreign policy adviser to benefit foreign countries he’d been paid to represent, it became increasingly clear that the Trump administration had been warned about his secretive lobbying ties.
The White House has maintained that President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence did not know that Flynn was acting as a foreign agent until he registered with the Justice Department in March.
But Trump officials were alerted on at least three separate occasions that the incoming national security adviser was being paid to represent Turkish interests. Despite those warnings, Flynn was allowed to attend classified intelligence briefings after August, first as an adviser to candidate Trump, and then as the president’s national security adviser.
Flynn retroactively registered as a foreign agent on March 7, filing paperwork with the Justice Department that showed he received more than $530,000 for work that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”
He disclosed in that same filing that he secretly met in a New York hotel with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and energy minister Berat Albayrak, who is President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law.
There’s nothing nefarious about doing anything that’s legal as long as the proper paperwork if filed.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer on March 9
Trump fired Flynn on Feb. 13 for misleading Pence about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the United States.
But neither Pence nor Trump have acknowledged they knowing anything before then about Flynn’s foreign connections.
Pence’s office reiterated that stand on Thursday.
“The Vice President stands by his comments in March upon first hearing the news regarding General Flynn’s ties to Turkey and fully supports the president’s decision to ask for General Flynn’s resignation,” his office said in a statement.
But there are reasons to doubt those assertions.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., was among the first to warn the Trump team of Flynn’s ties to Turkey, writing a letter on Nov. 18 to Pence, who was then hearing Trump’s transition team, that Flynn was lobbying on behalf of a Turkey-linked Dutch company. Trump had announced his intention to name Flynn national security adviser on the previous day.
Cummings also warned that under U.S. regulations, Flynn was ineligible to receive classified briefings, which he’d been receiving since August, because of his role as a foreign agent.
Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, warned Pence that Flynn was “receiving classified briefings during the presidential campaign while his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, Inc., was being paid to lobby the U.S. Government on behalf of a foreign government’s interests.” He also asked for information and statements regarding potential conflicts of interests.
“If the vice president had heeded my warnings, it’s clear now he could have prevented the problems that occurred with Lt. Gen. Flynn,” Cummings said when Flynn’s disclosures came out.
The letter, a copy of which was shared with McClatchy in March, would seem to contradict the White House’s claims that neither Pence nor Trump knew of Flynn’s lobbying until his Justice Department filing.
“Hearing that story today was the first I’d heard of it,” Pence told Fox News after Flynn filed the disclosures, a statement he repeated twice.
White House press secreetary Sean Spicer also declared in March that Trump was unaware that Flynn was acting as a foreign agent when he appointed him to be his national security adviser.
“He didn’t file until two days ago, so therefore, nobody would have known that because he hadn’t filed as a foreign agent until two days ago,” Spicer insisted on March 10.
He deflected reporters’ questions on why Cummings’ letter did not raise red flags by pointing out the retired lieutenant general’s “impeccable credentials.”
An opinion piece Flynn wrote for The Hill the day of the election, titled “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support,” which made the case for some of the Turkish government’s top priorities, raised suspicions at the Justice Department that Flynn was working as a foreign agent. Soon after, they notified Flynn that they were looking into his lobbying ties.
Flynn’s lawyer disclosed that investigation to Trump’s transition team on Jan. 4, The New York Times reported Wednesday. On Thursday, the White House pushed back on the New York Times report, calling it “flat wrong.”
“Neither Michael Flynn nor his attorneys told Transition Counsel that he was under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign,” a White House spokesman told NBC.
In January, Flynn’s personal lawyer reportedly spoke to Trump officials, including incoming White House counsel Don McGahn, to let them know that Flynn might register as a foreign agent and seeking their guidance.
Spicer all but confirmed that this had happened. At a press briefing in March, he asserted that Flynn’s lawyer “was instructed that that wasn’t the role of the transition, and that it was up to the personal lawyer to work with the appropriate authorities” to determine whether Flynn must register.
“It’s not something that would be appropriate for a government entity to give someone guidance on when they should file as an individual -- as a private citizen,” Spicer said.
That answer confirms that Flynn’s lawyer raised the topic. Contacted Thursday, the White House did not respond to McClatchy’s request for comment on why that information was not shared with the president and vice president.
After Jan. 20
Sometime after the inauguration, according to a report by the Associated Press, Flynn’s representatives had a second conversation with Trump’s lawyers and told them that Flynn had decided to register with the Justice Department. But that conversation apparently did not trigger any alarm or find its way to either Pence or Trump.
Flynn continued to participate in the president’s daily intelligence briefings and took part in his exchanges with foreign leaders, including Russian President Valdimir Putin, until he was fired Feb. 13.