Attorneys for Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent — a phone call that raised no alarms within Trump’s team, despite the unusual circumstance of having a top national security post filled by someone whose work may have benefited a foreign government.
The firm Flynn headed, Flynn Intel Group, was hired last year when Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign by the Netherlands-based firm Inovo BV, which is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Although the contract ended after the election, new details about the work Flynn did for Inovo resurrect the controversy over his short tenure as Trump’s top national security aide.
The national security adviser is supposed to be an honest broker within the executive branch, pulling together military and diplomatic options for the president so he can decide what policy to pursue. But Flynn’s work potentially benefiting Turkey meant he was representing the interests of a country other than the United States at the same time he was advising Trump on foreign policy during the election.
Flynn’s firm was paid more than $500,000 by Inovo for public relations and research work, including looking into exiled Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who resides in Pennsylvania. His extradition is being sought by Turkey, which has accused him of fomenting a coup attempt last year.
Flynn wrote an op-ed on Nov. 8 for the Hill newspaper in which he called for Gulen’s extradition — a controversial diplomatic issue for the United States.
“The primary bone of contention between the U.S. and Turkey is Fethullah Gülen, a shady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania whom former president Clinton once called his ‘friend’ in a well circulated video,” Flynn wrote.
“Gülen portrays himself as a moderate, but he is in fact a radical Islamist,” he wrote.
Flynn resigned from his White House post last month after just 24 days on the job amid reports he misled Vice President Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
But the disclosures this week about Flynn’s ties to Turkey underscore how the specter of the controversial retired lieutenant general still hangs over the White House.
On Tuesday, Flynn filed paperwork with the Justice Department identifying himself as a foreign agent who was paid last year to do work that could benefit the Turkish government.
Then on Friday it was revealed that Flynn’s attorneys twice told Trump’s legal counsel team of his possible plans to register as a foreign agent — once in a conversation with Don McGahn, Trump’s counsel, before the inauguration and then in a conversation with another member of the White House legal team during the administration’s early days, someone with knowledge of the situation told The Washington Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
A White House official confirmed both calls, the first of which was reported by the Associated Press, but said that Flynn’s attorneys had simply been seeking guidance, which Trump’s legal team said it was unable to provide.
Trump was never informed that his top national security pick felt he might need to register as a foreign agent, the White House said Friday.
Dan Pickard, a partner at Wiley Rein and an expert in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, under which Flynn registered, said it is unusual but not unheard of for a senior campaign official to also be registered as an agent of a foreign government.
“I’ve been aware of people who are registered under FARA being involved at relatively senior levels of a campaign, but in my experience that’s more the exception than the rule,’’ said Pickard, adding that the legal burden of complying with FARA “is relatively modest.’’
FARA was passed in the run-up to World War II as a means of making pro-Germany activists acknowledge whether they were receiving financial support from that country.
For some in Washington, the political appearance of being a paid agent of a foreign government can be more problematic than the actual legal issues, according to others well versed in the law.
Some political campaigns have asked FARA registrants in the past to notify them of their status if they attend a fundraiser, and some operatives are wary of being publicly associated with a foreign government.
The controversy over Flynn’s ties to Turkey illustrate why.
Nearly four weeks after his departure, the White House still can’t seem to escape Flynn.
In a week when the administration is making its biggest legislative push yet, White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s Friday afternoon news conference was yet again overshadowed by unflattering reports about Flynn — with Spicer devoting precious time to defending a staffer who no longer even works for the administration.
“The burden is on the individual to seek the legal advice or professional expertise to decide what they have to file and not,” Spicer said, parsing his explanation as to how someone who might have had to register as a foreign agent was hired as national security adviser.
“It’s not up to the transition attorney to go through someone’s livelihood and determine what they need to seek,” Spicer said. “They were given the proper legal advice at the time, which was to seek expertise in that matter.”
On Thursday evening, in an interview with Pence, Fox News’s Bret Baier pressed the vice president on reports that Flynn had registered as a foreign agent lobbying, essentially, on behalf of the Turkish government.
“Well, let me say, hearing that story today was the first I heard of it, and I fully support the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn's resignation,” Pence said. “The first I heard of it, and I think it is an affirmation of the President’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign.”
However, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent Pence a letter in November asking for more information on Flynn’s “apparent conflicts of interest” because of his and his firm’s lobbying work, specifically mentioning Flynn’s work in Turkey.
Asked why the letter did not pique Pence’s interest or why the vice president never alerted Trump, Spicer said, “It’s not a question of raising flags.”
“It’s not for us to adjudicate whether or not someone needs to file under, you know, the Lobbying Disclosure Act, the FARA registration act, that’s not the job of a transition attorney,” he said. “It’s to tell them to seek additional counsel or to explain to them where to find that information, not to tell them what to do or not to do.”
When Flynn resigned last month, Trump defended his national security adviser as a “wonderful man” who had “been treated very, very unfairly by the media.” On Friday, it remained unclear whether Trump had changed his assessment of Flynn in light of the latest disclosures.
But, Spicer said, the White House expects “every employee to follow the law.”
“I can tell you the president has made clear to every person in this administration, you are expected to live up to the high standards that he has set for them and that if you don’t you will be dismissed,” the press secretary said.
Devlin Barrett contributed to this report.