The Trump White House pursued a controversial nuclear energy project linked to Saudi Arabia even after warnings from career National Security Council staff and ethics officials that doing so without congressional approval would violate the law, the House Oversight Committee said in a preliminary report Tuesday.
The project was pushed by a top aide to ex-National Security Advisor Mike Flynn, who served as an advisor to a company lobbying for the project, and the aide continued to stress that the project was moving forward even after Flynn was fired, according to the report.
The House Oversight Committee released the interim report while announcing the opening of an investigation to “determine whether the actions being pursued by the Trump Administration are in the national security interests of the United States or, rather, serve those who stand to gain financially as a result of this potential change in U.S. foreign policy. ”
The committee said that “multiple whistleblowers” had already come forward to voice their concerns about the White House’s handling of the project. However, those sources worried about “political reprisal, retribution, or professional setbacks,” the report said. The committee Democrats, in investigating the claims, did not have support of Republicans who controlled the committee until this year, according to the report.
The report implicated Thomas Barrack, a longtime friend of President Trump who led Trump’s inaugural committee. Rick Gates, who pleaded guilty in special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, is also name-checked in the report for his alleged work on the project under Barrack.
Barrack was floated to be the administration’s special representative in implementing the project, according to the committee, including in a draft Cabinet Memo sent to Flynn by the company lobbying for the project.
Overall, the report said whistleblowers warned of “a working environment inside the White House marked by chaos, dysfunction, and backbiting.” The committee also invoked the cozy relationship the Trump administration and particularly Jared Kushner has had with Saudi Arabia — most recently manifesting in the White House’s handling of the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
The project was an effort to transfer U.S. nuclear energy technology to Saudi Arabia for the development of nuclear energy sites there. It was spearheaded by a company called IP3 International. Between June 2016 and December 2016, Flynn served as an advisor to a subsidiary to IP3 International called IronBridge Group, Inc. He faced scrutiny for omitting certain details about his relationship with the group on his government security clearance application forms.
From the beginning of the Trump administration, Flynn’s top aide Derek Harvey pushed for the project, described as a Middle East Marshall Plan, according to the report. Harvey claimed that Flynn had already made the decision to move forward with with the project during the transition, the report said.
Flynn is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, where he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about Russian contacts during the transition.
In early 2017, Harvey was warned by career staff that the White House would need to comply with Atomic Energy Act, which requires congressional approval of any transfer of nuclear technology to a foreign country, according to the report. Yet, Harvey ignored these warnings, the report said.
“Both career and political staff inside the White House reportedly agreed that Mr. Harvey’s directive could violate the law,” the report said. “One senior political official stated that the proposal was ‘not a business plan,’ but rather ‘a scheme for these generals to make some money.’ That official stated: ‘Okay, you know we cannot do this.'”
Ethics officials and legal staff for the National Security Council also raised concerns in late January 2017 about a conflict of interest for Flynn, according to the report. NSC staff was ordered by the NSC’s legal advisor to stopping working on it, according to the report. Harvey reacted “angrily” to the directive, but ultimately agreed with the assessment of an apparent conflict of interest, according to the report. Nonetheless, discussions about the project continued, the report said.
“I speak with Michael Flynn every night,” Harvey said in early March 2017, after Flynn was fired, according to the accounts of five whistleblowers to the committee. The comment prompted NSC staff to raise their concerns with National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, Flynn’s newly installed successor, about whether there were “efforts to circumvent the interagency procedures” McMaster had imposed, according to the report.
Deputy National Security Advisor K.T. McFarland also discussed the project with Trump in mid-March 2017, according to the report, and specifically the plan to tap Barrack as its implementor. According to the report, McFarland told the NSC staff, “You should all be meeting with Tom,” and the report includes emails the committee obtained also showing McFarland’s involvement.
Harvey held a conference call on March 21 with Barrack and Gates to discuss it, the committee said.
“A career NSC staffer who joined the call with Mr. Gates, Mr. Barrack, and Mr. Harvey later informed colleagues that Mr. Harvey was trying to promote the IP3 plan ‘so that Jared Kushner can present it to the President for approval,'” the report said.
NSC staff was reportedly told again, on March 27 — this time by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster — to stop working on the plan amid legal and ethics concerns.
“However, NSC staff remained concerned because the same individuals continued their work on IP3’s proposal,” the House Committee said. It later added that whistleblower’s accounts, while backed up by documents, “are limited to the beginning of the Trump Administration, and many questions remain unanswered—including whether and how the Trump Administration is moving forward with these efforts today.
Read the full report here.