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 leading up the US election, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Thursday.
In an interview with Fox on Thursday night, Vice President Mike Pence said he was not aware, either, and that he only heard about it as reports surfaced on Thursday that Flynn had registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department earlier this week.
Fox’s Bret Baier asked Pence if 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 was paid over $500,000 “to lobby, essentially, for Turkey” from August-November 2016.
“Hearing that story today was the first I’d heard of it,” Pence said, adding that he “fully support[s] the decision that President Trump made to ask for General Flynn’s resignation.”
But Rep. Elijah Cummings, 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 revealedthat 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.'”
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Flynn’s client, Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin, denied working on behalf of the Turkish government and said that 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 AP 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 for The Hill, published on November 8, that Gülen 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.