If the Turkish government was secretly and illegally attempting to influence Donald Trump through Michael Flynn during the 2016 campaign, his consulting partner Bijan Rafiekian was in the dark, attorneys for the Iranian American businessman told a jury Monday.
Flynn, Trump’s onetime national security adviser, ran a consulting firm with Rafekian called the Flynn Intel Group (FIG) that prosecutors say lobbied covertly on Turkey’s behalf for the expulsion from the United States of an exiled cleric named Fethullah Gulen. Flynn was set to be the government’s star witness at the trial that began in Alexandria federal court Monday, until he balked at testifying that he intentionally lied to the Justice Department.
Flynn is now a potential witness for the defense, while his son is expected to testify for the prosecution. The trial could influence whatever sentence Flynn receives in his own criminal case in D.C. federal court, where he admitted lying to the FBI.
“As a nation, we value transparency,” Assistant U.S. Attorney John Gibbs said in an opening statement. “Rafiekian and his colleagues lied” by claiming to be working not for Turkey but for a Dutch Turkish businessman named Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin is also charged in the case but remains abroad.
Defense attorney Robert Trout countered that “Bijan never conspired with anyone to violate the laws of this country.”
Trout told jurors, reading from a summary of classified intelligence given to the defendant last week, that the government has information about Turkey’s efforts to influence Trump through the relationship between Alptekin and Flynn that did not involve Rafiekian.
Rafiekian “only knew what was being communicated to him,” Trout said. Alptekin and Rafiekian both personally opposed “Islamists,” he said, and so happened to be “aligned with the government” of Turkey on Gulen.
The trial puts to the test the Justice Department’s newly aggressive enforcement of foreign-lobbying laws in the wake of Robert S. Mueller III’s special counsel investigation of Russian election interference.
The case is a challenging one built on circumstantial evidence of rarely prosecuted crimes. For many decades, Foreign Agent Registration Act violations were seldom pursued; from 1966 to 2015, there were only seven such cases and a single trial conviction. U.S. District Judge Anthony P. Trenga has questioned whether enough evidence exists of a conspiracy.
Gibbs walked painstakingly through some of that evidence in his opening. Alptekin approached Rafiekian and Flynn by saying high-level Turkish government officials were interested in the project, the prosecutor said.
By Gibbs’s account, the trio emphasized confidentiality and used encrypted communications. He said Alptekin passed along feedback from the Turkish leaders and that Flynn and Rafiekian met in New York City with the Turkish officials, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law. Flynn published under his own name an anti-Gulen op-ed in the Hill newspaper on the day of the U.S. presidential election that had been drafted by Rafiekian and shared with Alptekin, who said he had discussed such an editorial with Turkish leadership.
But when others at FIG were brought into the project, it was described as a campaign for Alptekin’s firm to improve the business climate in Turkey. Alptekin was given a 20 percent cut of the $600,000 FIG was paid, which Rafiekian inconsistently described as either a refund or a consulting fee. FIG only filed under FARA after the Justice Department urged it to do so, and its filing claimed Turkey was only inadvertently benefiting from the project.
Trout emphasized that the FARA filing was prepared by “one of the largest and oldest law firms in this city,” Covington & Burling, which had access to all the documents Gibbs referenced.
Alptekin and Rafiekian “wanted Turkey to hire FIG,” he said, but it never happened; Alptekin paid them because “he was interested in enhancing his own stature” with Turkish leaders. Trout said the New York meeting was brief and that there was “no request by any Turkish official for FIG to do anything.”
Trout said FIG’s efforts, which included a fictional board game called Gulenopoly, were “goofy” in comparison to a public lobbying effort paid for by the Turkish government that produced a slick anti-Gulen book. “Spoiler alert,” Trout said, “Gulenopoly was not the brainchild of President Erdogan in Turkey.”
Gibbs acknowledged that the op-ed was “one of the only items FIG produced” for the project.