President Donald Trump did not know that Michael Flynn had lobbied on behalf of the government of Turkey before appointing him national security adviser, the White House said Thursday.
“I don’t believe that that was known,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said.
The assertion that the White House was unaware of Flynn’s lobbying activities raises anew questions of how carefully Trump’s advisers have been investigated for possible conflicts of interest in an administration beset by allegations of such conflicts – beginning with the president’s own businesses.
Flynn belatedly registered this week with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit, acknowledging that he had worked last year for a company owned by a Turkish businessman that could have aided that country’s government. He was paid $530,000 before Trump won the presidency.
The paperwork indicates that Flynn and his firm, Flynn Intel Group Inc., worked for the Turkish company from August to November in a capacity that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”
Spicer said he saw no impropriety in Flynn’s work, which was carried out while he was also advising the Trump campaign.
“When you’re a private citizen, you’re allowed to engage in legal activities,” Spicer said. “I don’t have anything further on that but I think there’s . . . nothing nefarious about doing anything that’s legal as long as the proper paperwork is filed.”
U.S. citizens who lobby on behalf of a foreign government or political entity must register with the Justice Department, according to the Foreign Agent Registration Act. Failure to register is a felony.
Flynn was fired last month as Trump’s national security adviser for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in late December. But he’s not the first Trump official whose background has raised uncomfortable questions.
Democrats accused Trump of trying to force the Senate to confirm his Cabinet-level nominees without allowing them to properly vet them because of a failure to turn in required paperwork and before they’d reached agreements with the independent Office of Government Ethics to resolve potential conflicts. Trump nominees to head the departments of the Navy and the Army both withdrew after saying they could not comply with government ethics rules.
Trump himself has been criticized for not divesting himself of his businesses, including his Washington hotel, the building for which he leases from the federal government.
On Thursday, Office of Governmental Ethics Director Walter Shaub blasted the White House for claiming that officials in the president’s office are not subject to the same ethics rules that apply to other government officials. In a letter, Shaub questioned the White House’s failure to discipline another Trump adviser, Kellyanne Conway, for touting the fashion line of Trump daughter Ivanka during a television appearance from the White House briefing room.
The White House announced last month that it had “counseled” Conway on the breach of ethics rules, but Shaub said that was not enough. “Not taking disciplinary action against a senior official under such circumstances risks undermining the ethics program,” he wrote White House ethics officer Stefan Passantino.
Describing a letter from the White House, Shaub said he was “concerned about the extraordinary assertion that ‘many’ OGE regulations are inapplicable to employees of the Executive Office of the President. The assertion is incorrect, and the letter cites no legal basis for it.”
Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak also raised questions about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the government run RT news service. Flynn reportedly was paid $40,000 in 2015 to attend a gala marking RT’s 10th anniversary, where he was seated next to Putin.
Flynn was believed to have been an advocate for Trump’s campaign position that he would consider lifting sanctions imposed on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
When asked if Trump would have hired Flynn if he had known of his lobbying on Turkey’s behalf, Spicer demurred.
“That’s a hypothetical that I’m not prepared to ask,” Spicer said. “I don’t know what he discussed prior to being appointed in terms of his background, his resume, his client base. I don’t know any of that.”
Trump signed an executive order that forbids government employees from lobbying for five years and permanently from representing foreign governments after leaving the administration. It also prohibits lobbyists turned government employees from participating for two years in decisions about the issues on which they lobbied.