Trump transition knew Flynn might register as foreign agent

Michael Flynn
Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House, Feb. 1, 2017, in Washington.
Carolyn Kaster | AP File

Updated: 2:28 p.m. | Posted: 12:33 p.m.

Lawyers for retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn told President Donald Trump's transition team before the inauguration that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent, but Trump was not aware of the possible move, the White House said Friday.

The disclosure by White House officials confirms the Trump transition team was aware of the situation involving the president's pick for a top national security post either before he joined the government or soon afterward.

But the White House's acknowledgement raised new questions about whether Trump's transition team, and later, his White House lawyers, fully vetted Flynn after being informed about his possible filing as a foreign agent for his lobbying during the presidential campaign that may have benefited the government of Turkey.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer dismissed questions about whether the information should have given the transition team pause, saying Flynn had "impeccable credentials." Trump fired Flynn last month after less than a month on the job saying he had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other administration officials about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the U.S.

Spicer confirmed that Flynn's personal lawyer contacted Trump transition attorneys before the inauguration about the possible filing. But he added that Flynn's representative only asked for guidance and did not provide more details about the lobbying work or Flynn's business dealings.

Spicer said Flynn's decision whether to file as a foreign agent was a personal matter that his own attorney would need to handle.

Among those told of Flynn's lobbying work was Don McGahn, Trump's campaign lawyer who served in the transition and later became White House counsel, said a person with direct knowledge of the conversations between Flynn's representatives and the transition team.

That person, who was not authorized to describe confidential conversations and spoke on condition of anonymity, said that during discussions after the inauguration White House lawyers were told Flynn was moving ahead with plans to file as a foreign agent.

On Thursday, Spicer had said he did not believe Trump had been told of Flynn's work as a foreign agent. Later that day, Vice President Mike Pence said he was unaware of Flynn's foreign agent work until this week.

Flynn and his firm, Flynn Intel Group Inc., filed paperwork this week with the Justice Department formally identifying him as a foreign agent and acknowledging that his work for a company owned by a Turkish businessman "could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey."

In the filings with the Justice Department's Foreign Agent Registration Unit, Flynn and his company described $530,000 worth of lobbying before Election Day on behalf of Inovo BV, a Dutch-based company owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. The lobbying occurred from August through November while Flynn was a top Trump campaign adviser.

In an interview with the AP, Alptekin said Flynn and his firm filed the registration after pressure from Justice Department officials. Alptekin said he disagreed with the decision to register. He also said he had asked for some of his money back.

Flynn's registration comes as he has drawn scrutiny from the FBI for his contacts with Russian officials. Through a spokesman, Flynn declined to discuss the registration. In the filing, his attorney said the lobbying contract quickly ended after Trump's election in November.

On Thursday, Spicer defended Flynn's work, saying he did it as a "private citizen," but he declined to say whether Trump would have hired Flynn if he had known about the lobbying.

"There's nothing nefarious about doing anything that's legal as long as the proper paperwork is filed," Spicer said.

After Flynn joined the administration, he agreed not to lobby for five years after leaving government service and never to represent foreign governments. It appears that Flynn's work wouldn't violate the pledge because it occurred before he joined the administration in January. The pledge bars Flynn from ever doing the same type of work again in his lifetime.

Under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, U.S. citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign governments or political entities must disclose their work to the Justice Department. Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the department rarely files criminal charges in such cases. It routinely works with lobbying firms to get back in compliance with the law by registering and disclosing their work.

According to Flynn's filings, his firm's work involved research, informational materials and a video on the cleric Fethullah Gulen. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accused Gulen, who lives in Pennsylvania, of orchestrating a botched coup last summer. Erdogan has called for Gulen's extradition, a request the Obama administration rebuffed.

Alptekin, the Turkish businessman, has denied having any ties to Erdogan's government. But he is a member of a Turkish economic relations board run by an Erdogan appointee.

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