The top Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform told then Vice President-elect Mike Pence in a November letter that the man Donald Trump had tapped to be his national security adviser was lobbying on behalf of a foreign government.
The letter, a copy of which was shared with McClatchy, contradicts White House claims that neither Pence nor Trump knew of Michael Flynn’s lobbying until it was revealed in a Justice Department filing this week.
In the letter, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, asked Pence, then the leader of Trump’s transition team, for information regarding Flynn’s business interests and statements regarding potential conflicts of interests.
Cummings said Flynn’s work for Turkey and a speech Flynn gave in Russia could violate Trump for America’s code of ethics if Flynn was advising Trump on policy related to those two nations. Flynn was Trump’s principal foreign policy adviser during the campaign.
“Lt. Gen. Flynn’s involvement in advising Mr. Trump on matters relating to Turkey or Russia – including attending classified briefings on those matters – could violate the Trump for America, Inc. Code of Ethical Conduct,” Cummings wrote.
The Cummings’ letter, which was dated Nov. 18, the day after Trump announced that Flynn would be his national security adviser, adds to the mystery surrounding Flynn’s short tenure in the White House.
Trump fired Flynn Feb. 13 for offering a misleading account to Pence of a conversation he’d had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But that firing came three weeks after the Justice Department had warned the White House that Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak had been monitored and that a transcript contradicted Pence’s televised account of what Flynn had told him had been discussed.
Trump moved against Flynn only after the Washington Post had revealed the Justice Department warning a few hours earlier.
Flynn’s lobbying for Turkey came to light this week when he belatedly registered with the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration Unit and acknowledged that he’d been paid $530,000 for work from August to November that might have benefited Turkey’s government.
On Thursday, White House press spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump had been unaware of Flynn’s lobbying when he named him national security adviser. For his part, Pence told Fox News that he had heard about Flynn’s work for Turkey only after Flynn’s Justice Department filing this week.
But Cummings’ letter contradicts both versions.
Pence’s office did not respond to a request for comment. On Friday, Spicer acknowledged that Flynn’s attorney had raised a possibility of filing as a lobbyist with the transition team but that officials there did not advise him what to do.
“It’s a business matter, it’s not something that would be appropriate for a government entity to give someone guidance on when they should file as an individual,” Spicer said.
Cummings and Trump met at the White House about the cost of prescription drugs on Wednesday.
Flynn’s activities in Russia and Turkey were hardly secret. His appearance at a dinner commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Russian news agency RT in 2015, seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin, drew wide attention largely because of Flynn’s former role as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn reportedly received $40,000 for his appearance.
Flynn also advocated publicly for the extradition of a Turkish cleric, Fethullah Gulen, from his exile in Pennsylvania in response to Turkish government allegations that Gulen was behind a July 15 coup attempt. The U.S. government has made no decision to date on the extradition request.
Cummings’ letter made note of news reports on Flynn’s activities in questioning his role in the Trump transition.
“Recent news reports have revealed that Lt. Gen. Flynn was receiving classified briefings during the presidential campaign while his consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, Inc., was being paid to lobby the U.S. Government on behalf of a foreign government’s interests,” Cummings wrote.
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.
Spicer said Flynn’s work was acceptable because it was done before he worked for the federal government. But Cummings’ letter suggested that Flynn was something other than a private citizen because he was receiving classified briefings as a Trump adviser.
Flynn was believed to have been an advocate for Trump’s campaign position that a Trump administration would consider lifting sanctions that the Obama administration had imposed on Russia in retaliation for Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
Turkish media and officials also left little doubt that they expected Flynn to advocate for Turkish positions inside the White House. An opinion piece Flynn wrote in November for The Hill website in which he called Gulen a terrorist was widely quoted in Turkey and appeared on the front page of a Turkish government newspaper. Government officials said then that they expected a more favorable U.S. reaction to their extradition request once the Trump administration was in office.
Trump signed an executive order that forbids government employees from lobbying for five years and bars them 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.