The web connecting the Trump administration to Russia
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have aided a Russian company the U.S. government opposed during a 2015 visit to Saudi Arabia in which he pushed to be part of an ambitious nuclear-power project, raising new questions about his previously undisclosed trip.
Flynn reportedly made the trip — which was not reported on a security clearance form as required — for what has been described as a joint American/Russian venture to Saudi Arabia in the summer of 2015. Democrats on the House Oversight Committee said he advocated for his company interests in a Saudi nuclear-power development plan.
Not long after Flynn met with Saudi nuclear officials, the Russian nuclear-power giant Rosatom announced a $100 billion deal to build 46 nuclear reactors in Saudi Arabia. It is not known whether Flynn or the American companies he represented had any involvement in the Rosatom effort. Rosatom did not respond to emailed questions.
But a senior National Security Council official under former President Barack Obama confirmed it was U.S. policy in 2015 to discourage developing nations from dealing with Rosatom after the Russian takeover of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
“I think people just assumed that Rosatom was an eventual sanctions target,” the official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “When you start building sanctions regimes like the one against Russia, banks and foreign governments adjust not simply to the designated targets — they also start to anticipate potential targets and avoid doing business through them.”
Rosatom was never placed on a sanctions list, and if Flynn did work on behalf of the company it would not have been illegal.
Flynn’s attorney and officials with the companies that Flynn represented in the matter did not respond to emailed requests for a response.
Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who co-wrote a letter this week asking for information about Flynn, said Wednesday that the possibility that Flynn worked in Saudi Arabia against even an unofficial U.S. policy “raises a flag.”
“Flynn raises a lot of flags right now,” he added.
Engel said the primary concern behind a letter Democrats sent earlier this week is that Flynn appeared to have failed to disclose information on his security-clearance form that he should have disclosed. He said that the extent, if any, of Flynn’s connections to Rosatom, and whether he worked counter to American interests at the time, are part of what should be investigated.
Flynn, a top adviser to Trump's campaign who served briefly as national security adviser, has been contributing to the spate of bad news about the White House for months.
He was fired in February after he lied to top administration officials, including the vice president, about conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. But the headlines have continued long after he left for failing to disclose payments from foreign governments after he left the Pentagon.
Trump has been questioned repeatedly about why he trusted Flynn — now under investigation by the FBI — with the nation’s top secrets and why his staff didn’t vet him further after considering him for a job. Democrats have seized on the issue.
Just this week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-RI, a former prosecutor who is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism, suggested that Flynn is cooperating with the special counsel’s Russia’s investigation.
“If you draw conclusions as a prosecutor about what we can see from the Flynn investigation, all the signals are suggesting that he’s already cooperating with the FBI and may have been for some time,” Whitehouse told CNN.
On Wednesday, the ranking Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, Rep, Elijah Cummings, D-Md., sent a letter to White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus stating he has serious concerns about whether the White House is “properly safeguarding classified information,” and requesting information about the security clearances of Flynn, senior adviser Jared Kushner and other officials.
The letter, which doesn’t have a co-signer, is unlikely to generate a response, as the White House has decided not to respond to congressional committee requests without the signature of the Republican chair. The House Oversight Committee chair is Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who was only on the letter as a “cc.”
“The letter this week seeks to obtain information about whether — and why — Flynn was working to promote a deal between this Russian-controlled entity that was being heavily scrutinized at the time, why he failed to disclose his involvement, and the extent to which he may have received compensation for his services from any source,” Cummings said.
Officials involved in both security and nuclear policy during the Obama administration said the “unofficial official” discouragement of business with Rosatom was common knowledge in the field.
Rosatom itself mentioned American opposition to the company in a press release. The company said the United States held what it called “hidden meetings” with potential Rosatom clients to make clear that American officials did “not reccomend” working with Rosatom.
As the agreement with Saudi Arabia came at a time when the Russian economy was suffering from sanctions, the agreement was greeted with enthusiastic support in Russian media.
It would not be the first time that questions have been raised about Flynn working against U.S. interests.
Ten days before Trump was sworn in, Flynn reportedly told Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, not to go ahead with a Pentagon plan that had been months in the making. The plan was capture Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital, working with Syrian Kurdish forces. The Obama administration had approached Flynn during the transition because the effort was expected to take place after Trump took office. But the request came before Flynn had disclosed that he’d been a paid agent for a company with tight ties to Turkish leadership, and had been hired to represent Turkey’s interests in the United States.
Turkey was strongly against the United States working with Syria Kurds. In the end, Trump approved the plan after firing Flynn in February.
McClatchy Washington bureau reporter Vera Bergengruen contributed to this story.