Last week, President Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, registered as a foreign agent. Flynn confirmed that from August to November 2016, while serving as Trump’s military adviser, his company collected $530,000 from a Dutch-based firm for lobbying work that “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.” The White House dismisses this as an old story about a departed adviser. It’s more than that. It’s a story about what Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and their lawyers knew about Flynn’s Turkish connection all along, and what they’re covering up today.
Recent disclosures about several Trump advisers—Flynn, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Carter Page, J.D. Gordon, Jeff Sessions, and Jared Kushner—have exposed a pattern of foreign lobbying, secret meetings, and cover stories. The cases vary, but the common theme is deceit. The Turkish saga shows that this behavior extends beyond Russia.
To clarify what we know so far, I put together a timeline of what Trump and his aides were told about Flynn and Turkey, and what they said or did in response. You can read the whole chronology here, but this is the short version: While Flynn was serving as Trump’s military adviser—and routinely accusing Hillary Clinton of selling out America—he was taking money for lobbying U.S. officials on behalf of a foreign company to help a foreign government. The company, Inovo, was based in the Netherlands, but it was owned by a Turkish-American businessman, and Flynn’s job was to persuade U.S. officials to side with Turkey’s authoritarian president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, against his Turkish opposition.
That’s bad enough, but it’s just the beginning. Trump’s transition team was informed about the situation three days after the election, and Trump appointed Flynn to be his national security adviser anyway. He protected Flynn from congressional scrutiny and allowed him to participate in presidential U.S. intelligence briefings, even after media reports had exposed Flynn’s double role as Trump military adviser and Turkish agent, which Flynn didn’t officially terminate until his appointment as national security adviser.
Here is the slightly longer version: Flynn registered with Congress as a lobbyist for Inovo in September. In October, as part of the job, Flynn’s company met with congressional staffers and pitched a message that was essentially an attack on Erdogan’s chief political opponent. The presentation didn’t seem driven by U.S. interests, and the staffers found it fishy. Flynn followed up by publishing a pro-Erdogan op-ed on Election Day. This raised eyebrows in U.S. foreign policy circles, since Erdogan’s Islamist government was in the midst of a vicious authoritarian crackdown.
On Nov. 11, Chuck Ross, a reporter for the Daily Caller, informed the transition office, in a request for comment and in a published investigation, that Flynn had lobbied for Turkish government interests. Three days later, two more reports—one from Politico, the other from the American Enterprise Institute—hinted at the possibility that Flynn’s client could be a front for the Turkish government. By Nov. 17, several news outlets had thoroughly exposed Flynn’s Turkish connection.
Nevertheless, on Nov. 18, Trump announced that Flynn would be his national security adviser.
That assignment wasn’t an accident. It was done to spare Flynn a confirmation fight. Days before Trump’s announcement, sources in his camp told the Washington Post and New York Times that the exposure of Flynn’s lobbying made it hard to get him confirmed as CIA director or director of national intelligence. Given Flynn’s conduct, a president-elect who worried about U.S. national security might have hesitated to name him to any military or intelligence job. Instead, Trump named him to be national security adviser, the one assignment that didn’t require confirmation. Trump focused on protecting Flynn, not on protecting America.
For the next three months, various officials tried to unearth the full extent of Flynn’s relationship with Turkey. Trump resisted them all. On Nov. 18, experts on classified information said Flynn’s work for foreign companies had to be investigated before including him in further intelligence briefings. The transition office said any lobbying Flynn had done as a private citizen was his own business. On Dec. 9, two senators requested a review of Flynn’s security clearance. The transition team apparently paid no attention. Then came the Russia warnings. On Jan. 26, acting Attorney General Sally Yates told White House Counsel Don McGahn that Flynn had misled Pence about a phone call with Russia’s ambassador. In subsequent weeks, the Justice Department pushed Flynn to come clean about his work as a foreign agent. Nevertheless, in mid-February, Trump and his press secretary, Sean Spicer, insisted that apart from misleading Pence about Russia, Flynn had done nothing wrong.
It’s an ugly story, and it’s not over yet. But there are plenty of lessons to take from what we already know.
1. Trump has no real sense of patriotism. He ran for president as the leader of a nationalist movement against global financial corruption. But when Flynn took foreign money and redefined America’s interests to match Erdogan’s, Trump didn’t care. On Nov. 18, the day Trump appointed Flynn as his national security adviser, Rep. Elijah Cummings sent Pence a letter appealing to his concern for national security. The letter expressed alarm that Flynn had received classified briefings while under foreign financial influence. The transition office acknowledged receipt of the letter. But there’s no sign that Trump or Pence did anything about it.
In fact, the transition office defended Flynn’s right to run “a private consulting business to advise companies”—implying that financial relationships were immune to government scrutiny. Last week, after Flynn registered as a foreign agent, Spicer repeated: “This was a personal matter. It’s a business matter. It’s not something that would be appropriate for a government entity to give someone guidance on.” Spicer dismissed Flynn’s international lobbying as akin to selling stock or taking a tax deduction, as though serving one country rather than another were a simple transaction.
2. Trump’s talk of protecting America from ISIS and Islamists is fake. It’s a good campaign line, and Trump has used it to justify restrictions on travel from Muslim countries. But when Flynn signed a six-figure deal to recast the ISIS-coddling, Islamist president of Turkey as a brave U.S. ally, Trump said nothing.
3. Trump doesn’t vet his own people. If you come to the United States from a Muslim country, you might be barred or detained in the name of “extreme vetting.” But if you’re in the running for a top job in Trump’s government, the vetting is up to you. “The burden is on the individual to seek the legal advice or professional expertise to decide what they have to file,” Spicer said Friday, parrying questions about Flynn. “It is not up to the transition attorney to go through someone’s livelihood and determine what they need to see.”
4. Trump’s rule is that anything within the law is OK. Republicans used to mock Bill Clinton and Al Gore for defending unethical conduct as legal. But Trump embraces that minimal standard. On Thursday, Spicer said of Flynn’s work as a foreign agent: “There’s nothing nefarious about doing anything that’s legal, as long as the proper paperwork is filed.” On Friday, when reporters tried to shift the conversation from legal compliance to national security, Spicer refused. The only relevant question, he insisted, was: “Did they seek the appropriate professional advice and counsel? And they did.”
5. Don’t trust White House denials. This is a good general rule, but it’s doubly true in Trump’s case. On Friday, Spicer defended Flynn’s appointment, despite his lobbying relationship, by asserting, “There was no disclosure at the time.” That’s bull. Flynn’s company filed its first lobbying form on Sept. 30. Several publications reported on the Turkish connection before Flynn was offered the national security adviser job. At Friday’s briefing, Spicer also claimed that no one could have known Flynn was going to register as a foreign agent until he did it. Hours later, reporters learned that this, too, was false: At some point before the inauguration, Flynn’s lawyers had warned the transition office and the White House that he might register. This White House lies about everything.
6. Don’t trust Pence. The vice president often serves as Trump’s frontman, projecting folksy integrity. But don’t mistake his piety for candor. Last week on Fox News, Bret Baier asked Pence about Flynn registering as a foreign agent. Pence replied: “Hearing that story today was the first I heard of it.” Baier asked Pence whether he was disappointed in Flynn. Pence repeated: “First I heard of it.” Read the Nov. 18 letter Cummings sent to the vice president–elect. Pence was explicitly warned.
7. Don’t take their excuses seriously. No White House has ever been this cavalier about lying or this cynical in rationalizing its misconduct. A month ago, Flynn was under fire for hinting at sanctions relief in his phone call with the Russian ambassador. At that time, Spicer argued that the call was OK because Flynn was the incoming national security adviser, not an ordinary citizen. Now that the issue is taking money to lobby for Turkish interests, Spicer makes the opposite argument: that Flynn’s deal was fine because he was just an ordinary businessman. “He was a private citizen,” said Spicer. “And when you’re a private citizen, you’re allowed to engage in legal activities.”
Russia, Ukraine, China, Turkey. Stone, Flynn, Sessions. Page, Gordon, Kushner. Every time you think you know the full extent of Trump’s web of money, conniving, and lies, another thread turns up. That’s the ultimate lesson of the Turkish story. It isn’t about Flynn. It isn’t even about Turkey. It’s about a circle of people who don’t respect national or moral boundaries. God knows what else they’ve done.