When President Donald Trump tried to stop the FBI investigation of his national security adviser, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was Trump aware of Flynn’s meetings with Turkish officials? If so, it could significantly increase the president’s exposure to political liability and legal wrongdoing involving obstruction of justice.
On Valentine’s Day 2017, the president asked FBI Director James Comey if he could see his “way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” according to Comey’s congressional testimony (see also interview with Donald Trump Jr.). What was Trump wanting Comey to let go exactly? So far the media has focused on federal investigators’ ongoing probe at the time into whether Flynn lied to the FBI, but at the same time there was also an ongoing federal investigation into Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkey–and the White House knew about it. We also now know that on Sept. 19, 2016, and in mid-December 2016, Flynn reportedly met with senior Turkish officials, and discussed the prospect of kidnapping and secretly removing a US resident, cleric Fethullah Gülen, from the United States into Turkey’s custody. If Trump knew about the Turkey meetings at the time of the Feb. 14 exchange with Comey, that would raise a “different order of problem for the President,” Ben Wittes exclaimed on Lawfare’s podcast. Ben’s right.
In this article, we look at several data points on the timeline, as well as statements provided to Just Security by former CIA Director James Woolsey’s spokesperson.
One important point to know at the outset: First, it is not only important what the president knew on Feb. 14, but also what he became aware of in the weeks and months afterward. That’s because the president took additional steps to try stop the investigation of Flynn following the Oval Office meeting with Comey. A crucial part of the timeline, for example, is the efforts of the White House to stop the investigation of Flynn in late March 2017 and the revelation of Flynn’s September 2016 meeting with Turkish officials around that same time.
At the same time, we do not want to lose focus on another significant legal dimension here. Even if the president had no knowledge of the potential kidnapping meetings, if he tried to obstruct the federal investigation into Flynn’s work as an agent of a foreign government (Turkey), it would significantly raise the prospect of legal and political liability beyond his potential liability for obstructing the Russia-related investigation.
We offer the timeline and analysis below for others to assess. Our own conclusions are threefold. First, the mounting evidence of Flynn’s having been a paid foreign agent for Turkey presumably figured into Trump’s calculus in relieving him of duty. Second, the White House knew of the threatening nature of an active federal investigation of Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkey when the president asked Comey to let Flynn go on Feb. 14. Third, the information contained in Flynn’s filing as a foreign agent in early March was likely on the minds of White House senior officials when they attempted to get top intelligence officials to intervene with Comey to drop the Flynn investigation that month.
These claims may sound strong when stacked together. But they are also each qualified and relatively modest all things considered. That’s because we don’t know the full picture. Even if Flynn’s foreign agent filings were on senior officials’ minds, they may have acted for other reasons, for example. And when they asked top intelligence officials to get Comey to halt the Flynn investigation, maybe they limited their inquiry to the Russia-related part. The Trump campaign and administration have also suffered from disorganization, which makes it hard to infer that any one set of individuals were aware of what others knew or were doing. All that said, there’s a mountain of information here to raise serious questions, and that lend circumstantial support to our conclusions.
I. When did the Flynn-Turkey federal investigation start?
When did the Justice Department start looking into Flynn’s ties to Turkey? It may have started once former CIA Director James Woolsey alerted U.S. officials to the September 2016 meeting around that time. Woolsey’s spokesperson clarified in a story for NBC that the FBI was already “in communication” with Woolsey before the matter was taken over by Mueller in May. More importantly, in a letter dated Nov. 30, 2016, the Justice Department notified Flynn that it was scrutinizing his lobbying work on behalf of the Turkish government. That appears to be a step shy of an open investigation. But by Jan. 4, 2017, at the latest, the Justice Department was reportedly investigating the matter to the point that Flynn was told of the investigation. (Note: as discussed below, Flynn informed the Trump transition team on January 4 that he was under federal investigation for his work for Turkey.) In short, we know generally when the FBI started looking into Flynn’s Turkey lobbying work, but we still don’t know when the FBI became aware of the potential kidnapping plot.
Flynn also came under a different criminal investigation sometime after Jan. 24 2017, with respect to to his statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Amb. Sergey Kislyak. In an interview with the FBI on Jan. 24, Flynn may have lied to the FBI about whether he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador. It is after that point that Flynn came under criminal investigation for potentially lying to the FBI.
At an unknown date, Flynn’s son, Michael G. Flynn, also became a subject of the federal investigation into Russia, NBC reported in September 2017. Mueller is now also looking into what role Flynn’s son may have played in efforts involving Turkey, including the December 2016 meeting, NBC reported more recently.
II. When did President Trump try to intercede?
There are three relevant points on the timeline.
1. February 14, 2017: Trump directly to Comey:
Flynn resigns on Feb. 13, 2017. The following day, Trump directly asks Comey, in a private one-on-one conversation, if the FBI Director could see his “way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” according to Comey’s prepared congressional testimony on June 8, 2017. Comey testified that the president “added that he had other concerns about Flynn, which he did not then specify.” Comey also testifies about whether he thought the president was asking to let go of the entire Russia investigation or more specifically Flynn’s legal problems. Comey writes:
“I had understood the President to be requesting that we drop any investigation of Flynn in connection with false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador in December. I did not understand the President to be talking about the broader investigation into Russia or possible links to his campaign. I could be wrong, but I took him to be focusing on what had just happened with Flynn’s departure and the controversy around his account of his phone calls.”
That passage suggests that Comey thought the President was asking only about the Flynn-Russia related investigation and not the Flynn-Turkey investigation. But it is difficult to know what the president actually knew at that time. Important to that evaluation, Comey was not at liberty to testify publicly about the Turkey-related investigation. It is also relevant that Trump told Comey in general that Flynn “is a good guy and has been through a lot”–suggesting he was trying to absolve Flynn personally from any investigation. It would also be unusual for Trump to say drop Flynn on one investigation but not another. What’s more, Trump’s interest in broad protection from liability for Flynn may also be indicated by the president’s tweet on March 31, 2017, that “Flynn should ask for immunity.” Finally, the headache created for the White House by Flynn’s Turkey-related wrongdoing was presumably part of the decision-making that led to his departure (see the timeline below).
2. Mid-to-late March 2017: Trump and WH officials indirectly via senior intelligence officials
On March 22, the president reportedly asks Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, in a private conversation, to intervene with Comey to get the FBI to stop investigating Flynn. Coats reportedly “discussed the conversation with other officials and decided that intervening with Comey as Trump had suggested would be inappropriate.” Also around that same time, “senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn,” according to the Washington Post.
3. May 9, 2017: Trump fires Comey
III. What President Trump and his team knew about Flynn-Turkey and when they knew it
August 9-November 15, 2016: On Aug. 9, 2016, Flynn’s firm signs a contract with a Dutch company, Inovo, which is owned by Ekim Alptekin, the chairman of the Turkish-American Business Council. Alptekin is widely reported to have ties to the Turkish government, including helping organize Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s 2016 visit to Washington, D.C. Flynn’s subsequent filing as a foreign agent in March 2017 (see entry below in timeline) will reveal that Alptekin’s company paid Flynn’s firm over $500,000 for work performed from August to November 2016. The Associated Press reported, “Alptekin, the Turkish businessman, has denied having any ties to Erdogan’s government.”
September 19, 2016: Flynn participates in a meeting with senior Turkish officials in which the group reportedly discusses the option of kidnapping the cleric Gulen and removing him from the United States, according to a Wall Street Journal story (published in March 2017). Alptekin invited Flynn to the meeting, according to Flynn’s firm, and Alptekin is present at the meeting. Woolsey, who was affiliated with Flynn’s firm at the time, was present for part of the meeting’s discussion,the contents of which he said greatly disturbed him. Woolsey thought the proposal for Gulen would “pretty clearly be a violation of law” and he reported it to “several people,” including U.S. government officials at the time, specifically including an intermediary to Vice President Joseph Biden.
Note: Woolsey’s spokesman, Jonathan Franks, told Just Security that Woolsey did not inform members of the Trump campaign about the September meeting. An important question is whether, either through the “several people” Woolsey informed or through others, Trump or his inner circle learned of the September meeting. If the Trump campaign was aware of the meeting before the WSJ story broke in March, it was apparently not directly from Woolsey.
Sept. 19, 2016: On the same day as his Turkish meeting, Flynn joins Trump and Jeff Sessions in a meeting with Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-sisi.
Sept. 30, 2016: Flynn’s firm publicly registers as a lobbyist for Alptekin’s company Inovo. (This is not the same as registering as a foreign agent, which occurs on March 7, 2017.)
Sometime between Nov. 8, 2016 and Jan. 20, 2017: Flynn’s personal lawyer alerted the Trump transition team prior to the inauguration that Flynn might register as a foreign agent of Turkey. Don McGahn, the campaign’s top lawyer and now White House Counsel, was reportedly among those told at the time.
Nov. 8, 2016: The Hill publishes an Op-Ed by Flynn titled, “Our ally Turkey is in crisis and needs our support.” It calls for orienting several aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Turkey’s interests. In reference to the cleric Gulen, Flynn writes, “From Turkey’s point of view, Washington is harboring Turkey’s Osama bin Laden….We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective. What would we have done if right after 9/11 we heard the news that Osama bin Laden lives in a nice villa at a Turkish resort…?…We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.”
Nov. 10, 2016: President Barack Obama privately warns Trump about Flynn during their Oval Office meeting two days after the election. At least one person familiar with the meeting told Politico that “Obama forcefully told Trump to steer clear of Flynn.” There are no publicly available details about why exactly Obama warned Trump and whether Obama stated specific concerns about Flynn.
Prior to Nov. 11, 2016: Chris Christie, who headed the transition team until Nov. 11, 2016, has subsequently said he directly warned Trump about Flynn, but he has not said specifically what those warnings entailed or the basis for them. “I didn’t think that he was someone who would bring benefit to the President or to the administration, and I made that very clear to candidate Trump, and I made it very clear to President-elect Trump,” Christie said in May 2017. Politico reports that as chief of the transition team, Christie “mounted a campaign against Flynn for the national security adviser job.” Christie told associates as early as August 2016 of his concerns about Flynn.
Nov. 11, 2016: On Nov. 11, the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross publishes a detailed story titled, “Trump’s Top Military Adviser Is Lobbying For Obscure Company With Ties To Turkish Government.” It is an expose that includes Dutch business records and other information tying Alptekin to Flynn’s firm and work on behalf of the government of Turkey, and it also notes that Flynn failed to disclose any of this information in his op-ed for The Hill. (Months later The Hill adds a disclosure and notes that Flynn failed to inform them when he wrote the essay.)
Nov. 15, 2016: Flynn’s contract with Alptekin is terminated.
Flynn has voiced interest in being Director of National Intelligence, and was on a list of candidates for the position shortly after the election. He also expressed interest in being secretary of state, secretary of defense, or national security adviser. It’s recognized, however, that Senate confirmation could be difficult in part due to his connections to Turkey, according to a person who spoke on the condition of anonymity to the Washington Post about the internal transition team discussions.
Nov. 16, 2018: Trump announces that Flynn will serve as National Security Adviser.
Nov. 18, 2016: Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee, sends a letter to Vice President-elect Mike Pence, in his capacity as chairman of the Trump transition team, warning about conflicts created by Flynn’s work on behalf of Turkey, and Flynn’s firm being hired by Alptekin’s company. The transition team’s office of legislative affairs sends Cummings a receipt that confirmed they received the letter and pledged to “review your letter carefully.”
Later, Pence denies ever receiving the letter. On March 9, Pence states in a Fox News interview that Flynn’s registration as a foreign agent is “the first I heard of it [Flynn’s Turkey-related lobbying work] and I think it is an affirmation of the President’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign.” Likewise, on May 19, Pence’s office told NBC News that “Rep. Cummings letter did not reach the vice president.” On the same day, Cummings responded to CNN, “Either he’s not telling the truth, or he was running a sloppy shop because we have a receipt…that says they received the letter.”
What’s more, Cummings did not just send a quiet letter. He issued a press release with the text of the letter, and received media coverage across major media outlets at the time, likely increasing the salience of the issue for the transition team.
Nov. 19, 2016: Trump campaign lawyer, William McGinley, holds a conference call with members of the Flynn firm “seeking more information” about the group’s foreign work on Turkey and “to review the particulars of Flynn’s piece in The Hill,” according to the New York Times and New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle. (McGinley was subsequently appointed as White House Cabinet Secretary.)
Dec. 9, 2016: Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) send a letter to FBI Director James Comey, DNI James Clapper, and OPM Acting Director Beth Cobert calling for a re-evaluation of Flynn’s security clearance. They cite his “repeated mishandling of classified information,” his paid visit to Moscow, and his business interests as CEO of Flynn Intel Group.
“General Flynn appears to have an unresolved conflict of interest in his ownership of the Flynn Intel Group. His company has previously registered to lobby on behalf of Turkish businessman Kamil Ekim Alptekin and received compensation to persuade U.S. public opinion in favor of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.”
“This ongoing business relationship of Flynn Intel Group, owned by General Flynn and operated by his son, creates the potential for pressure, coercion, and exploitation by foreign agents.”
Mid-Dec. 2016: In a second meeting with Turkish government representatives, Flynn reportedly discusses the idea of he and his son helping to forcibly remove Gulen and deliver the cleric to Turkish custody using a private jet, in a plot that would have paid the Flynns $15 million, according to the Wall Street Journal. “Flynn also was prepared to use his influence in the White House to further the legal extradition of the cleric,” according to the story. Michael Flynn’s lawyers dispute the story.
Jan. 4, 2017: Flynn reportedly tells the transition team, including McGahn, that he is under federal investigation for secretly working as a paid lobbyist for Turkey.
After Jan. 20: Flynn’s lawyers have “a second conversation with Trump lawyers … and made clear the national security adviser would indeed be registering [as a foreign agent] with the Justice Department,” the AP reported.
Feb. 7, 2017: Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have their first telephone call in which they discuss a range of policy issues. Flynn is still national security advisor at this point.
Feb. 13, 2017: A PAC aligned with the Democratic Party, the Democratic Coalition Against Trump files a report with the National Security Agency alleging that Flynn has sought “to influence the White House on behalf of Turkey and its president, Recep Erdogan, while failing to register as an agent with the Department of Justice.”
Feb.13, 2017: Flynn resigns
REMINDER: It is on Feb. 14, 2017 that Trump asks Comey to drop the investigation of Flynn.
March 7, 2017: Flynn retroactively files as a foreign agent of the government of Turkey in the first week of March 2017. In a filing on March 7, Flynn’s firm reports the Sept. 19, 2016 meeting with senior Turkish officials (describing the event as “for the purpose of understanding better the political climate in Turkey at the time”). The document also states that Flynn’s firm was invited to the September meeting by Alptekin. In a separate filing, Flynn’s firm states that Alptekin’s Dutch company, Inovo, paid Flynn’s firm over $500,000 for work performed from August to November 2016, which the firm said “could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”
A blanket of media coverage details the information in Flynn’s foreign agent filings, including noticing the Sept. 19, 2016 meeting. The New Yorker’s Nicholas Schmidle reports on March 16: “Though the full breadth of the group’s conversation is not known, the same source told me that the Turks sought, among other things, Flynn’s assistance in maligning Fethullah Gülen.”
SIGNIFICANCE: It is hard to believe that the Flynn filings of his Turkey work were not on the minds of the White House when they engaged in efforts later that month to try to get other intelligence officials to intervene with Comey to drop the Flynn investigation.
March 24 (and days prior to March 24?):
The Wall Street Journal published a news report and exclusive video interview with Woolsey in which he publicly discloses that the Sept. 19, 2016 meeting included the discussion of kidnapping and removing the cleric from the United States.
SIGNIFICANCE: Did Trump and White House officials know before the Wall Street Journal story went public? Trump and his team were certainly made aware on March 24 of the potentially outrageous nature of the September meeting, when the interview with Woolsey was published. Were they alerted to this information before March 24, for example, through the people the Journal’s reporters contacted for comment? The story does state, for example, that the Journal reached out to the chairman and president of Flynn’s firm and to Mr. Alptekin for comment when researching the story. The Journal also reached out to the spokesperson for Erdogan’s son-in-law, who is also the Turkish energy minister, and was present at the Sept. 19 meeting. That spokesperson referred the Journal to the Turkish Embassy in Washington, which provided a written statement prior to publication. The story does not indicate whether the White House was contacted prior to publication.
Why is this timing vitally important? As we discussed earlier, on March 22, Trump held his private conversation with Coats and Pompeo to see if they could help get Comey to drop the Flynn investigation, and apparently around that same time in March senior White House officials reached out to top intelligence officials for the same purpose. It would expose the White House politically and legally if they knew at the time about the September meeting that included the kidnapping discussion.
Woolsey’s spokesman, Jonathan Franks, told Just Security that Woolsey did not inform the White House about the September meeting before the publication of the Wall Street Journal story in March. So, if the Trump campaign or the White House were aware of the Sept. 19 meeting before the Wall Street Journal story broke, it was not directly from Woolsey.
Early April: Flynn’s associates receive grand jury subpoenas, from the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of Virginia, seeking business records and communications involving clients tied to the Turkish government, according to CNN and the Wall Street Journal. The subpoenas show that federal prosecutors are investigating arrangements involving Flynn and Alptekin, according to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Reuters, which each obtained copies of the subpoenas. (Recall that Alptekin was reportedly at the Sept. 19 meeting, and according to Flynn’s firms documents, he invited Flynn to the meeting.)
SIGNIFICANCE: On May 9, Trump fires Comey. As an indication of the close timing, CNN reports that it “learned of the subpoenas hours before President Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey.” The Wall Street Journal also raised a question similar to ours in a story about the timing of the subpoenas: “The subpoena that the Journal reviewed was sent out in early April, nearly a month before Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey, raising questions about whether the president learned the investigation into Mr. Flynn was escalating before firing Mr. Comey, who was overseeing the probe.”
Pattern of denials
One final note, the White House and senior officials have repeatedly denied knowledge of Flynn’s connections to Turkey or work he did on behalf of Turkey. Those statements were later revealed to be false. Shortly after Flynn filed as a foreign agent, for example, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on March 9, 2017, that Trump was not aware that Flynn acted as a foreign agent when he appointed him as national security adviser. Within 24 hours, the Associated Press reported that Flynn’s lawyers informed the Trump transition team that Flynn might have to file as a foreign agent. When confronted with the AP story the following day, Spicer essentially downplayed the significance of the lawyer’s inquiry:
Q: Could you clear up what appears to be some tension between what you said yesterday about when the administration or the president was made aware of General Flynn’s foreign lobbying ties and the AP reporting today that the transition team was informed of Flynn’s potential need to register?
SPICER: So there’s a big difference between when he filed, which was the other day — two days ago — and what happened then. What the AP is reporting, just so we’re clear, is that a personal lawyer of General Flynn’s contacted a transition lawyer and asked for guidance on what he should or should not do.
But why would it take Flynn’s formally filing as a foreign agent for Trump and the transition team to be aware of Flynn’s activities? We now know that Flynn told the transition team on Jan. 4 that he was under federal investigation for his work on behalf of Turkey. That was reported by the New York Times on May 17, 2017. Recall as well the conference call on Nov. 19, 2016 when Trump campaign lawyer and now White House Cabinet Secretary, William McGinley spoke with members of the Flynn firm to obtain information about the group’s work for Turkey. That too was reported after Spicer’s March 9 and 10, 2017 press conferences. Why did the White House deny it?
[Editor’s Note: You may also be interested in Ryan Goodman’s “Ability to Charge Flynn Strengthens Case of Obstruction of Justice against Trump” and Alex Whiting’s “Could Trump Have Obstructed Justice if a Grand Jury Hadn’t Convened Yet?”]