The lead Democrat and Republican on the House Oversight Committee meted out a rare bipartisan rebuke of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn on Tuesday after seeing private information that confirmed the former administration official failed to disclose foreign income from Russia and Turkey.
The public criticism by the senior Republican on the House’s chief investigative panel is unusual and presents a dilemma for the White House, which was accused of failing to provide everything the committee asked for — an assertion White House press secretary Sean Spicer disputed.
Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), suggested that Flynn broke the law. Flynn was ousted in February after misleading Vice President Pence about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
The lawmakers said they believe Flynn neither received permission nor fully disclosed income he earned for a speaking engagement in Russia and lobbying activities on behalf of Turkey. They reached the conclusion after viewing two classified memos and a disclosure form in a private briefing Tuesday morning.
“Personally I see no evidence or no data to support the notion that General Flynn complied with the law,” Chaffetz told reporters after the briefing.
Added Cummings: “He was supposed to get permission, he was supposed to report it, and he didn’t. This is a major problem.”
The bipartisan criticism of Flynn is a striking departure from the partisan discord that has defined recent Oversight Committee investigations. Democrats have often complained of being shut out of major decisions in high-profile investigations such as the Benghazi probe.
It comes as the House and Senate intelligence committees move into a new phase of their investigations into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election, including alleged ties between campaign aides and Russian officials. The FBI is also investigating Russia’s suspected interference in the elections and ties to the Trump campaign.
After a rocky start, the House Intelligence Committee is gaining steam with a new head of the Russia investigation. Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-Tex.) — who stepped in after the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), recused himself — has scheduled a classified briefing next Tuesday with the directors of the FBI and National Security Agency. He has invited former CIA director John Brennan, former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. and former acting attorney general Sally Yates to testify in an open hearing.
The Senate is also taking action. Yates and Clapper are scheduled to testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on May 8.
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said Tuesday that his panel had “finished the initial round” of over 20 interviews and planned to “pick that pace up” with more in the near future.
Flynn is on the list of officials Burr hopes to bring in for an interview. The senator noted the panel had been interested in speaking to him “from the beginning.”
“In many cases in investigations like this, you get one shot at people,” Burr said, explaining why they had not yet invited him. “So we want to make sure we’re as thorough as we possibly can be.”
Chaffetz and Cummings stressed Tuesday that as a former military officer, Flynn would have needed special permission for his December 2015 appearance at a gala sponsored by RT, the Russian-government-funded television station, for which he was paid $45,000. For his work lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government, he was paid more than $500,000.
“It does not appear that was ever sought, nor did he get that permission,” Chaffetz said.
The Republican later added that while Flynn was clearly not in compliance with the law, “it would be a little strong to say that he flat-out lied.”
Democrats immediately pounced on the news, claiming that it was yet another drip of damaging information implicating the Trump world’s relationship with Russia.
“The disturbing news that General Flynn may have violated the law in connection with his security clearance may be just the tip of the iceberg,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Tuesday. “These revelations highlight the importance of the intelligence committee working in a bipartisan way to request and receive documents with respect to any financial arrangements Flynn and others in similar positions may have had with foreign governments,” he said.
According to the New York Times, Flynn isn’t the only member of Trump’s team who left his contacts with foreign officials off his official security-clearance application — Jared Kushner left his meetings with Russian officials off the same form.
Chaffetz and Cummings stressed that Flynn’s omission could cost him. Violations of this nature can be punished by up to five years of jail time. The FBI could open an investigation into the matter, and if it has not already, Congress could ask them to do so.
Those decisions will probably be up to the Justice Department’s new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, whom the Senate confirmed Tuesday by a vote of 94 to 6. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from matters involving the Trump campaign.
The bar for prosecution is high. The law requires investigators to show that Flynn “knowingly and willfully” made false statements. Prosecutors would not be able to make a case if Flynn’s forms were inaccurate because of carelessness or an honest mistake.
Chaffetz stressed that the government should “recover the money” paid to Flynn by foreign entities, a figure that would at least be in the tens of thousands of dollars. But Chaffetz announced last week that he would resign from Congress in 2018 and perhaps leave much sooner — setting off a scramble to replace him. On Tuesday, Chaffetz also said the House Intelligence Committee would be the panel to compel any testimony from Flynn.
Spicer would not say in his Tuesday briefing whether Flynn may have broken the law.
“That would be a question for him and the law enforcement agency. I don’t know what he filled out or what he did or didn’t do,” Spicer told reporters. “He filled that form out before coming here, so it would be up to the committee and other authorities to look at that.”
He insisted the Trump administration had provided all the documents Congress requested.
“Every document they asked for it’s my understanding they’ve gotten,” he said.
The Oversight Committee asked the White House in March for documents pertaining to Flynn’s security-clearance applications, the vetting that occurred before he was named national security adviser, and all of his contacts with foreign agents, including any payments received. In particular, the committee heads requested to see a disclosure form known as the SF86, on which Flynn was obligated to declare any foreign income.
On April 19, the White House sent the committee a reply, stating that any documents related to Flynn from before Jan. 20 — the day Trump took office — were not in its possession and that any documents from after that date did not seem relevant to the investigation.
Spicer added Tuesday that records requests for Flynn’s conversations with foreign contacts were “unwieldy,” arguing it was Flynn’s job “to talk with foreign counterparts on a daily basis.”
“To document every call that he may have made is not exactly a request that is able to be filled,” he said.
Flynn counsel Rob Kelner of Covington & Burling said his client has spoken extensively with the government about the matter. “As has previously been reported, General Flynn briefed the Defense Intelligence Agency, a component agency of DoD, extensively regarding the RT speaking event trip both before and after the trip, and he answered any questions that were posed by DIA concerning the trip during those briefings,” Kelner said in a statement.
The documents that committee members reviewed Tuesday came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and showed that Flynn had not declared any income from Russian or Turkish sources, committee leaders said.
Kelner also noted that lawmakers might be interested in seeing documents that could shed light on what Flynn told the White House and his foreign contacts before he was named national security adviser, and what led to his exit less than a month later. During the transition period, Flynn told the incoming White House that he might need to register as a foreign agent.
David Nakamura and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.