Days after Donald Trump’s stunning election victory, Michael Flynn phoned former CIA Director James Woolsey about taking another stint as head of the spy agency in the new administration, but then added a condition, Woolsey said.
Flynn said the CIA director “would be expected to report to him,” not the president, Woolsey told McClatchy in a phone interview. Woolsey, who led the CIA in the first two years of the Clinton administration, said he promptly rejected the offer because there are times that he would need to “call on the president face to face.”
Washington attorney Robert Kelner, who is defending Flynn in the face of FBI, Pentagon and congressional investigations into his ties to Russia and Turkey, said Woolsey’s account is “false.” Kelner did not elaborate.
Spokespeople for the CIA and the White House declined to comment on whether Flynn sought to require CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who took the job in January, to report first to him. But Pompeo has been personally briefing Trump on a daily basis.
Flynn’s alleged maneuver with Woolsey, seemingly aimed at consolidating his control, could cause consternation now that more is known about the retired three-star Army general. At the time of his approach to Woolsey, Flynn’s Virginia-based consulting firm had been paid over $500,000 to secretly represent a Dutch company led by a Turkish businessman with ties to the Ankara government.
Flynn was forced to resign his post just 24 days into the Trump administration amid disclosures he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had with the Kremlin’s U.S. ambassador in December. It later was revealed that he had received $45,000 for appearing in late 2015 at a Moscow gala and giving an interview to RT, the global television news operation bankrolled by the Kremlin.
Now Flynn is a central figure in multiple investigations into Russia’s 2016 cyber and espionage offensive aimed at interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections, ultimately by helping tip the presidential race from Democrat Hillary Clinton to Trump..
Flynn’s Turkey connection was not revealed publicly until March 7, nearly a month after he left the White House. Then he retroactively registered as a foreign agent because, his lawyer wrote, his actions may have benefited the government of Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
McClatchy reported May 17 that in the final days of the Obama administration, and without divulging the identity of his Turkish client, Flynn took a step directly benefiting Turkey. He asked the Obama administration to hold off plans to arm Syrian Kurds, a plan to which Turkey objected, for an invasion of Raqqa, the de facto capital of the terrorist group ISIS, short for the Islamic State.
Flynn’s resignation stemmed from misleading comments about whether he discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia during phone conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on Dec. 29, 2016.
On that day, three weeks before Trump took office, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and toughened other sanctions on Vladimir Putin’s government as punishment for a Kremlin cyber offensive aimed at interfering with last year’s U.S. elections and helping Trump win the Oval Office.
It’s not clear whether Trump okayed Flynn’s rerouting of the president’s longtime line of authority over the CIA, which provides daily intelligence updates on matters around the globe.
Flynn had listed Woolsey as a member of an advisory board to his company, Flynn Intel Group, but Woolsey said he never received any compensation and had no contract or official role. He did attend one meeting, in September, and said he left deeply troubled.
Woolsey said he arrived late to the meeting and found Flynn and some Turkish government officials brainstorming a plan to kidnap and fly to Turkey one of the country’s leading dissidents – Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom Ankara has accused of assisting in a failed military coup attempt last summer. Gulen is living in a heavily secured compound in Pennsylvania.
"They were working on the assumption that they could take Gulen," said Woolsey, who told the Wall Street Journal in March that such a scheme would be illegal.
Woolsey said Flynn began the Nov. 14 phone call, which occurred a couple of days before Flynn was formally named national security adviser, by saying the Trump administration would be “restructuring the intelligence community” and asked if he would “be willing to be director of the CIA.”
“I asked him a couple of questions about how things would work,” Woolsey said. “It was quite clear that he was going to be national security adviser, of course, and he expected the CIA director to report to him.”
Woolsey said he worked under that kind of arrangement during the Clinton administration, reporting to National Security Adviser Tony Lake, and while they got to be “very good friends,” he thought the structure only could work if the CIA director could go directly to the president when needed.
“He basically made it clear that I would report to him,” Woolsey said. “I said, ‘I don’t really want to do it that way.’ So we hung up and said, ‘Thanks a lot, good to talk to you. Goodbye.’”
Peter Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent