A new account of what the Trump transition team knew about Michael Flynn’s problematic work for Turkey—and when it knew it—paints an even more baffling picture of Trump’s decision to install Flynn as national security adviser.
The new details reported by The New York Times also further call into question claims by the White House and the vice president that they were unaware of Flynn’s work for Turkey until after he had left the administration.
More than two weeks before President Donald Trump was sworn in, Flynn told the transition team that he was under federal investigation for serving as a paid lobbyist for Turkey while working on the presidential campaign, the Times reported Wednesday.
Flynn first informed the transition team’s chief lawyer, Don McGahn, who now serves as White House counsel, on Jan. 4, two people familiar with the case told the newspaper. Flynn’s lawyer provided additional information to other transition team lawyers in another meeting on Jan. 6, according to the report.
This revelation indicates that the incoming Trump administration, which has continued to defend Flynn’s reputation, knew that he was under investigation by the Justice Department earlier than previously reported. Armed with this knowledge, they still installed Flynn as national security adviser, where he was privy to the United States’ most classified secrets.
Nearly 24 hours after the Times revelations, the White House issued a statement calling the story “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,’” read the statement, which was not attributed to any specific staffer.
The saga of Flynn’s work for Turkey dates back to November, when news reports first surfaced that his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, was working for Inovo BV, a Dutch firm owned by a Turkish businessman later revealed to have close financial ties to Russia. Those reports came in the wake of an op-ed Flynn published in The Hill on Election Day calling for better relations between Turkey and the U.S. According to the Times, that column caught the attention of the Justice Department, prompting a Nov. 30 letter informing Flynn that federal investigators were looking into his lobbying work.
Trump named Flynn his national security adviser on Nov. 17, and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD), the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, wrote a letter to then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence the next day expressing concern that he “was hired by a foreign company to lobby for Turkish interests.”
Flynn disbanded his firm shortly after his appointment, and filed a public disclosure report on Dec. 1 terminating his registration as a lobbyist for Inovo. (Flynn had properly registered as a lobbyist for Inovo, but only later would he separately register as a foreign agent for the work, which ultimately benefited Turkey.)
The exact nature of that work didn’t come out until Flynn left the Trump administration in mid-February over a separate scandal: his failure to disclose private conversations with Russian officials to Pence and other senior White House officials.
In early March, Flynn retroactively registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department, acknowledging that the work his firm was doing while he served as a Trump campaign adviser and designated national security adviser “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.” In undertaking the work, the Flynn Intel Group had signed a contract to receive $600,000 from Inovo for running an influence campaign against Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric despised by Erdogan who lives in exile in Pennsylvania, according to his filings under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Between a wealth of news reports on Flynn’s lobbying and the conversations between both Flynn and McGahn and Flynn’s lawyers and the Trump transition team’s lawyers, it’s clear that the Trump team was informed about his foreign dealings earlier than advertised. A scan of headlines in major publications would have let senior Trump transition officials know that their national security adviser-to-be had spent months working as a lobbyist for Turkey. And the top White House lawyer was told prior to inauguration not only that Flynn might need to register as a foreign agent, but that he was under investigation by the federal government regarding that work.
Asked in a March 9 press briefing whether Trump knew about Flynn’s work for Turkey before making him national security adviser, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said, “I don’t believe that that was known.”
Pence said twice, unprompted, during a Fox News interview the same day that it “was the first I’d heard” of Flynn’s work for Turkey. His office released a statement Thursday saying he “stands by” those March comments, and insisting that, even though he was chair of the transition, he was never informed about the DOJ investigation.
The Associated Press has separately reported that Flynn’s lawyers told the transition team before inauguration that Flynn might need to register as a foreign agent. (It’s not clear if this is the same meeting where they learned about the DOJ investigation.)
This report apparently did not alarm the White House, according to Spicer, who said on March 10, the day the AP story broke, that Flynn’s work “was a personal matter, a business matter, not something appropriate for a government entity.”
The administration has maintained that they believed all Trump appointees filed the requisite paperwork and passed background checks, and deferred additional questions to the Justice Department.
The Justice Department has since issued grand jury subpoenas to Flynn’s business associates, and the Times reported that “veteran espionage prosecutor” Brandon Van Grack is leading the probe into Flynn’s foreign dealings.
One subpoena reviewed by the Times demands all “records, research, contracts, bank records, communications” and other documents related to work with Flynn and the Flynn Intel Group.
It also asks for similar records about Ekim Alptekin, the Turkish businessman behind Inovo BV, according to the Times.
This post has been updated.