White House press secretary Sean Spicer got into a testy exchange with several reporters during Friday’s press briefing over former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn’s paid lobbying for Turkish interests.
Flynn, who was fired from his White House job, registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department earlier this week. He earned $530,000 for his lobbying work, which was carried out before Election Day.
A reporter asked Spicer about this arrangement, questioning whether President Donald Trump was aware of Flynn’s lobbying.
“Can you say that the president was informed at all about this arrangement … needing to register as a foreign agent?” the reporter asked.
Spicer said no.
The reporter then questioned whether the reports of Flynn’s lobbying “set off any alarm bells within the administration.”
“Just so we’re clear, you wouldn’t, Gen. Flynn filed with the Department of Justice two days ago,” Spicer said.
The reporter then asked, “What about the need to file?”
“That’s up to his personal lawyer,” Spicer said. “I mean, again, each person that goes through the process in government seeks counsel in many cases regarding the assets they own and the activities they conducted, as to what they have to do or not do.”
Spicer continued: “But this is something that, you know, it’s like asking whether someone needed to file, if they have a client, whether or not they needed to file a lobbying disclosure form. That’s not up for us to determine. That’s up for them and their counsel to determine if they engaged in activities in the past or whatever it is, or if a doctor needed to go an up their certification, that’s not up for the government to determine. There are certain private citizen’s activities that you conduct and you seek counsel on or professional advice. That’s not up to the government. And that’s exactly how the system worked.”
Fox News’ John Roberts then asked how that didn’t raise a red flag.
Spicer cut him off and said, “You already had your question, John.”
But Roberts continued.
“You have an attorney calling the transition that the person who is in line to be the national security adviser may need to register as a foreign agent,” Roberts said. “And that doesn’t raise a red flag?”
“It’s not a question of raising a red flag, John,” Spicer said. “It’s a question of whether or not they gave them the advice they’re supposed to, which is it is not up to them to make decisions as to what you need to do or not do. As you know, there are certain activities that fall under each of these requirements as far as what the threshold is, what activities, who the funding source was, etc. etc. It is not up to, nor is it appropriate, nor is it legal, for the government to start going in private citizens seeking advice and telling them what they have to register or not.”
He continued: “That would be the equivalent of walking through someone’s tax return and saying ‘that’s not a deduction that you should take, that is.’ That’s why when you contact these agencies, they will tell you you should seek counsel or professional advice or expertise in whatever matter it is. That is not up to them to determine. Plain and simple.”
Another reporter then asked a follow-up question, pointing out that “this was an issue of judgment about who you guys wanted in your administration.”
“There were published reports that your potential national security adviser had dealings with the government of Turkey, a controversial regime at this moment in time,” the reporter said. “Congressman Cummings sent a letter to Mike Pence during the transition informing him of this and raising a red flag. Mr. Pence was on television I believe yesterday saying twice he had no knowledge of that letter.”
Spicer cut in.
“Hold on, before you accuse the vice president of certain things, know what he said is he was not aware of the filing,” Spicer said. “Just so we’re clear. And he wasn’t. Go on.”
The reporter started again.
“Just in terms of the larger question here – forget about filling out forms and the legalisms here,” he said. “What does this say about the transition team’s judgement about still appointing him as national security adviser when you had knowledge of this information?”
Spicer said he can’t “forget about the legalisms.”
“What I’m saying is that’s what we did,” he said. “They consulted a lawyer, which everyone who had something is advised to do, that lawyer consulted the transition lawyer who said it is your job to consult the appropriate lawyers.”
The reporter retorted that he was “talking about the judgement that the president, the vice president, and your team made to select this man as national security adviser when you had information that he had these dealings with Turkey.”
Spicer responded by listing Flynn’s qualifications.
“What dealings are you referring to, the fact that he had a client?” he said. “He was also the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, unbelievably qualified, 40 years in the military, with impeccable credentials, I mean, so what is it, that he, I mean what exactly are you getting at? Because so far, he has impeccable credentials, he had a stellar career in the military, widely respected, and I think for you to start to impugn his integrity-“
The reporter interrupted, but Spicer cut him off.
“There was no disclosure at the time,” Spicer said. “And the question is if his counsel worked with whomever he worked with and determined that he didn’t, that’s up to him. … The burden is on the individual to seek the legal advice or professional expertise to decide what they have to file and not. … That is not up to the transition attorney to go through someone’s livelihood and determine what they need to seek.”
Another reporter then asked whether the Trump administration is concerned that others advising the president might also be lobbying on behalf of foreign governments.
“This is like saying … can you tell me that the executives at NBC News have gone through every single person’s and reporter’s background?” Spicer said. “We trust people to fill out the forms that they are required to do so in an honest and legal manner. And in this case, he retroactively filed the forms that he was supposed to do but we advised him to do what the legal and proper thing was and that’s the right thing for this administration.”
Spicer said the White House expects “every employee to follow the law” and Trump instituted a five-year ban on lobbying.
“He has ran on a commitment to drain the swamp,” Spicer said. “He has been very committed to making sure that we institute high standards here and that we’re held to them.”