- REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump was not aware that his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was being paid to lobby for Turkish interests in the months before the US election, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said Thursday.
“I don’t believe that was known,” Spicer said when asked whether Trump knew about Flynn’s work before he appointed Flynn to his Cabinet.
In an interview with Fox News on Thursday night, Vice President Mike Pence said he was not aware either and that he only first heard about it as reports surfaced Thursday that Flynn had registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department earlier this week.
Fox News’ Bret Baier asked Pence whether he would have “had to fire Flynn anyway”- even if Flynn had not misled him about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador to the US in December – because he was paid over $500,000 “to lobby, essentially, for Turkey” from August to November.
“Hearing that story today was the first I’d heard of it,” Pence said, adding that he “fully” supported “the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn’s resignation.”
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent Pence a letter on November 18 requesting more information about the potential conflicts of interest posed by Flynn’s lobbying work.
“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.
“Lt. Gen. Flynn’s General Counsel and Principal, Robert Kelley, confirmed that they were hired by a foreign company to lobby for Turkish interests, stating: ‘They want to keep posted on what we all want to be informed of: the present situation, the transition between President Obama and President-Elect Trump.’ When asked whether the firm had been hired because of Lt. Gen. Flynn’s close ties to President-elect Trump, Mr. Kelley responded, ‘I hope so.'”
Pence’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Rep. Cummings told Business Insider through his office that he believes “the problems that have occurred with Lt. General Flynn” could have been avoided had Pence heeded his warnings.
“In addition to being in the press, I warned the Vice President directly three months ago about the conflicts created by Lt. General Flynn’s company lobbying on behalf of Turkish interests,” Cummings said.
“If the Vice President had heeded my warnings, it’s clear now he could have prevented the problems that occurred with Lt. General Flynn. Republicans in Congress are doing a disservice to the White House and our national security interests by not conducting rigorous and serious oversight of the administration, especially to help catch issues early and address them.”
Flynn’s client, Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, denied working on behalf of the Turkish government and said he disagreed with Flynn’s decision to register as a foreign agent with the Department of Justice.
“I disagree with the filing,” Alptekin, who paid Flynn’s firm just over $500,000 for the four months of lobbying, told the Associated Press on Friday. “It would be different if I was working for the government of Turkey, but I am not taking directions from anyone in the government.”
Alptekin is a member of a Turkish economic relations board run by an appointee of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Flynn’s firm was tasked with lobbying the US government to extradite Fetullah Gulen – a Turkish cleric living in Pennsylvania who Erdogan believes is responsible for planning last year’s attempted coup and generally fomenting dissent inside Turkey.
Flynn argued in an op-ed article for The Hill, published November 8, that Gulen helmed a “vast global network” that “has all the right markings to fit the description of a dangerous sleeper terror network.”
“From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden,” Flynn wrote.
The Obama administration said it would not extradite Gulen until Turkey provided the necessary evidence of his complicity in the coup, but Trump has not said how he plans to address the issue, if at all.