Former national security adviser Michael Flynn wasn’t the only Trump associate pursuing a sketchy, lucrative deal to tarnish the reputation of a U.S.-based cleric loathed by Turkey’s government during the thick of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Former CIA director James Woolsey did so, too, asking Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin for $10 million to carry out a lobbying and public relations campaign targeting Fethullah Gulen, Reuters reported Thursday.
This is where things get weird. Woolsey was a member of Flynn’s firm, the Flynn Intel Group, and sat in on a Sept. 19, 2016 meeting with Alptekin to discuss how best to carry out its $600,000 contract to smear Gulen, which the two parties had entered into in August. The very next day, Woolsey held his own lunch meeting with Alptekin and his associate Sezgin Baran Korkmaz, where he asked for a much higher price to use his Washington, D.C. connections to help turn U.S. government sentiment against Gulen.
Woolsey’s apparent effort to circumvent Flynn placed two of GOP nominee Trump’s top national security advisers in contact with Turkish interests on a matter of high interest to Turkey: U.S. policy toward Gulen. The Turkish government badly wants Gulen extradited, which the U.S. has thus far refused to do.
Shortly after being forced out of the White House for allegedly failing to disclose the extent of his communications with Russian officials, Flynn and his firm in March retroactively registered as foreign agents for their work on the Turkey project. In the Justice Department filing, Flynn’s attorney, Robert Kelner, allowed that it “could be construed to have principally benefited the republic of Turkey.” That contract is one of many threads that federal and congressional investigators are looking into as part of their overarching probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
In an email memo seen by Reuters, Woolsey and his wife, Nancye Miller, offered to “draw attention to” the central role that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes Gulen, who is based in Pennsylvania, played in orchestrating a failed July 2016 coup in Turkey.
A spokesman for Woolsey and Miller told the publication that the couple did hold the Sept. 20 lunch meeting at New York’s Peninsula Hotel but that it was “unremarkable” and the discussion did not focus on Gulen.
Alptekin had a different story, telling Reuters that the pitch did focus on the cleric and that he ultimately elected to keep his contract with Flynn Intel Group rather than going with Woolsey’s plan.
Woolsey went public earlier this year with a stunning account of the Sept. 19 meeting, claiming that he heard Flynn, Alptekin and Turkey’s energy and finance ministers discussing secretly spiriting Gulen out of the country “in the dead of night.”
Flynn has denied this version of events, and Alptekin told Reuters it was “fiction” and “all the more astounding” given Woolsey’s own efforts to obtain his business at the Sept. 20 meeting.
Flynn Intel Group is one layer of the connective tissue binding these disparate players. Another is the Nowruz Commission, a D.C. non-profit run by Flynn’s former business partner at the now-defunct Flynn Intel Group, Bijan Kian. Woolsey is an ambassador to the commission, while Alptekin serves as the commission’s vice chairman, a member of the board of directors and an ambassador representing Turkey. Flynn attended and spoke at a number of the commission’s annual events.
Special counsel Robert Mueller and various congressional committees are investigating Flynn’s work for foreign entities, including Turkey. Mueller’s team has reportedly looked into Kian, Flynn’s onetime partner, while Korkmaz, Alptekin’s associate, was recently subpoenaed by Mueller’s team.