The Pentagon’s top watchdog has launched an investigation into money that former national security adviser and retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn received from foreign groups and whether he failed to obtain proper approval to do so, lawmakers and defense officials said Thursday.
The Pentagon has in the past advised retiring officers that because they can be recalled to military service, they are subject to the Constitution’s rarely enforced emoluments clause, which prohibits top officials from receiving payments or favors from foreign governments.
On Thursday, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, released an Oct. 8, 2014, letter in which a Defense Department lawyer warned Flynn upon his retirement from military service that he was forbidden from receiving payments from foreign sources without receiving permission from the U.S. government first.
Flynn received $45,000 to appear in 2015 with Russian President Vladimir Putin at a gala dinner for RT, a Kremlin-controlled media organization. He also worked as a foreign agent representing Turkish interests for a Netherlands-based company, Inovo BV, which paid his company $530,000 in the fall.
Flynn was fired as national security adviser in February after revelations that he misled Vice President Pence about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States. The pugnacious retired officer, who last year led “lock her up” chants about Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, filed paperwork as a foreign agent for Turkish interests about three weeks later, on March 7.
Defense Department guidelines warn that the department’s top financial officer, the comptroller, “may pursue debt collection” if a retired officer does not seek permission to accept foreign payments before doing so. Any debt collection due to an emoluments clause violation is capped at no more than what an individual makes in retirement pay during a period of unauthorized employment. In Flynn’s case, that is more than $35,000 for the three months of the Inovo project.
Flynn’s lawyer, Robert K. Kelner, has argued that the retired general met requirements for his trip to Russia by briefing the Defense Intelligence Agency, from which he retired in 2014, before and after that trip. DIA confirmed that he did so in a letter it sent to to the House committee this month, but added that it had no record of Flynn seeking permission or approval to accept money for going.
Kelner released a statement on Twitter that noted that the letter sent by DIA to the House committee this month shows that Flynn communicated with the agency about his trip to Moscow both before and afterward. It also mentions that Flynn submitted a thumb drive with information about a presentation he made in Russia through his speakers bureau.
“General Flynn provided two briefings to the Department — one before and one after the event,” Kelner said. “The Department was fully aware of the trip. We urge DIA and the Committee to release the full, unredacted letter, along with the documents that Flynn provided to DIA during the briefings and details concerning the in-person briefings provided by General Flynn to DIA.”
Flynn did not seek permission from the U.S. government to work as a paid foreign agent for Turkish interests, U.S. defense officials said last month, raising the possibility that the Pentagon could dock his retirement pay. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said then that the Defense Department was reviewing the issue. The Army had no record of Flynn seeking permission for that arrangement, military officials said.
The issue involving Turkey emerged after Flynn retroactively registered in March with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for work that his company, Flynn Intel Group, carried out on behalf of Inovo BV. It is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, who is not a part of the Turkish government but has links to it.
Flynn’s company received three payments between September and November from Inovo BV before Trump was elected president and the arrangement was discontinued, according to Flynn’s filings. Flynn is the majority owner and chief executive officer of the Flynn Intel Group.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, asked about the inspector general investigation said Thursday that he thinks it is “appropriate.”
“If they think that there’s wrongdoing, then the department’s inspector general should look into that,” he said.
But the White House deflected any criticism that it failed to properly vet Flynn to be Trump’s top security adviser. Spicer said any improper actions by Flynn also flew under the radar of the Obama administration: The Department of Defense issued Flynn a new security clearance in 2016, and Flynn took his trip to Russia in 2015.
“All of the clearance was made during the Obama administration, and apparently with knowledge of the trip that he took,” the press secretary said.
Flynn’s security clearance at the time, though, would have been granted by career civil servants, not political appointees in the Obama administration. And Spicer indicated that beyond checking that Flynn had a security clearance, the Trump administration did not do much vetting of him — something that new administrations typically do.
When asked by reporters if the president had any regrets about bringing Flynn on in the first place, Spicer said: “I think the president made the right decision at the right time, and it’s been pretty clear.”
Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Defense Department inspector general, said the investigation into Flynn began April 4. The watchdog’s office did not discuss the investigation publicly until after the House Oversight Committee released documents about it, and it typically does not disclose what it is reviewing while an investigation is underway.
“These documents raise grave questions about why Gen. Flynn concealed the payments he received from foreign sources after he was warned explicitly by the Pentagon,” Cummings said. “Our next step is to get the documents we are seeking from the White House so we can complete our investigation. I thank the Department of Defense for providing us with unclassified versions of these documents.”
Cummings also alleged that the White House was covering up f0r Flynn by not willingly releasing all documents associated with his case. Spicer disputed that later in the day, saying that it was “not true” and he was “taken aback” by the accusation.
The latest revelations from the Pentagon came as congressional Democrats put more pressure on Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, to make good on vows to investigate the Flynn matter.
Democrats on the panel reminded Chaffetz that for years he has warned witnesses that complying with committee requests “is not an optional exercise.”
“Your decisions on this investigation will have a profound impact on the faith that the American people have in Congress to act in an even-handed manner and fulfill our duty under the Constitution to exercise robust oversight of the Executive Branch, regardless of who occupies the White House,” the Democrats added.
Chaffetz announced Wednesday that he is planning to take a medical leave of up to four weeks to repair screws implanted in his foot years ago after an accident. It is likely that House GOP leaders will appoint an interim chairman in his absence.
Two Republican members who emerged Thursday from the room with the documents about Flynn brushed off questions from reporters. But a group of Democrats on the committee addressed the media.
“The information that we received this morning was quite troubling. Actually, it left us with more questions, I would say, than answers,” said Rep. Val Butler Demings (D-Fla.).
Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said they just came from a classified briefing and could not discuss the material they reviewed. She said the material ought to be declassified so that the American people can “read it and judge for themselves.”
The Democrats demanded further documents from the White House.
“They have already told us they have documents with respect to General Flynn. And we’ve received zero documents,” said Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.). “So they’ve told us we have these documents, and they’ve been widely reported in the press that they have the documents, yet they refuse to give it to Congress.”
Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) said that after reviewing the documents, he believes lawmakers should “keep digging” on Flynn.
Cartwright declined to share specifics about what the documents entail, but he said Republican members of the oversight panel should be pushing the White House to release more information about what top administration officials knew about Flynn during the presidential campaign, transition and in the early days of Trump’s presidency.
Amber Phillips contributed to this report.