What did Trump’s team know about Michael Flynn’s Turkish lobbying gig and when did they know it? White House press secretary Sean Spicer on Thursday said that President Donald Trump had no idea Flynn, his former national security adviser and campaign trail confidant, was working for a shadowy man named Kamil Ekim Alptekin with deep ties to the Turkish government.
Flynn’s firm, the Flynn Intel Group, filed lobbying disclosure forms revealing the surface of the relationship with Alptekin going as far back as September. While the forms don’t mention Turkey, and Flynn last week denied knowing of any connection between Alptekin’s firm and the Turkish government, a series of additional filings and actions should have raised red flags in Trump’s campaign, the White House, and elsewhere, especially by November, when Flynn published a controversial op-ed advocating for better U.S. relations with Turkey that aligned squarely with the interests of Alptekin and the increasingly incalcitrant Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Who is Kamil Ekim Alptekin? He’s the president of EA Holdings, a Turkish maker of defense products and information technology, as well as a the founder of Eclipse Aerospace, a small-plane manufacturer based in New Mexico. Most importantly, Alptekin is closely associated with the government of Erdogan. Flynn’s relationship with Alptekin and Turkey gained additional scrutiny last week when the retired 3-star general’s lawyers disclosed more details of his firm’s relationship in new federal government filings. In them, they allege Alptekin is not “an agent” of any government. But the form also reveals that as part of that contract, Alptekin introduced Turkish government officials to Flynn Intel Group officials at a Sept. 19 meeting in New York.
Flynn claims the work he did for Alpetkin’s company consisted of advising on a potential deal with another company in Israel to export natural gas to Turkey. Flynn’s job was helping Aptekin’s company to “understand the tumultuous political climate at the time between the United States and Turkey so that Inovo could advise its client regarding its business opportunities and investment in Turkey,” the form reads.
Rather than ask why did a group of Turkish officials need to meet Michael Flynn to talk about a gas deal, a better question might be, did Alptekin have any ambitions about influencing the U.S. government?
In a word, yes.
After the failed July coup in Turkey, in a July interview with the nominally nonpartisan Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey, published just before Flynn got on Alptekin’s payroll, Alptekin described ongoing and increasing efforts to influence U.S. policy and nullify the influence of Fethullah Gülen, a Turkish cleric who lives in self-exile in Pennsylvania. The Erdogan government has blamed Gulen for the coup.
“If we are truly determined to struggle against the parallel structure” — the term used by Erdogan loyalists to invoke a purported Gülenist shadow government — “we have to invest in similar resources equally, to ponder as much as them, regarding developing trade relations with the biggest economy of the world, and getting what we deserve in issues like Syria and Cyprus,” he said.
What did Turkey deserve? More money for Turkish arms makers, it appears, especially of the sort that participate with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program.
“Donating to the Congress is the most essential aspect of lobbying activity in American politics,” he says. “For instance, if you want to buy something from Turkey…if you want to export weaponry, the approval of the Turkish government is enough. This is not the case in the U.S. In fact, if you want to buy weapons from the U.S., you also need the approval of the Congress. We recently started to understand this system and to shape our policies accordingly. Not only do the people we meet during the visits and the people we invite when we go there change, but we also started changing our strategy and tactics. And this shift is giving its fruits.”
Jump four months later to Nov. 8 — Election Day — when Flynn’s op-ed was published, in which he argues: “We need to adjust our foreign policy to recognize Turkey as a priority. We need to see the world from Turkey’s perspective,” Flynn wrote. “We must begin with understanding that Turkey is vital to U.S. interests.”
In between those dates, shortly after the September meeting in New York between Alptekin’s Turkish government friends and Flynn Intel Group, Flynn’s lawyer filed a lobbying disclosure form revealing that they would begin “consulting” work for a Dutch-based company called Inovo BV, according to the congressional research service Legistorm. But little else is known about it. Unlike the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, forms Flynn filed last week, standard lobbying disclosure forms do not require lobbyists to disclose all that much, and Flynn Intel Group’s is typically vague. It gives only a Dutch-based address for Inovo and does not describe the sort of work the company does.
When Legistorm analyzed the lobbying forms in October, it said, “Flynn's firm will be doing organization consulting’ on behalf of Inovo BV. Why ‘organization consulting’ would require a federal lobbying disclosure is not made clear.” Robert Kelley, the firm’s lawyer and a former chief counsel to the House Oversight Committee’s national security subcommittee, signed the forms.
In November, the Daily Caller obtained Dutch registration records for Inovo that showed the company is owned by Kamil Ekim Alptekin.
Flynn’s group in November also filed a second, sparse, lobbying disclosure form about their work with Inovo B.V., which would have given the Trump team additional public record documents to vet.
In his November op-ed in The Hill, Flynn called Gülen a dangerous extremist who has played the U.S. government for fools, an opinion Flynn shares with Erdogan and, perhaps more to the point, with Alptekin.
The op-ed was updated last week with an editor’s note on Flynn’s financial arrangement with Inovo, reading: “On March 8, 2017, four months after this article was published, General Flynn filed documents with the Federal government indicating that he earned $530,000 last fall for consulting work that might have aided the government of Turkey. In the filings, Flynn disclosed that he had received payments from Inovo BV, a Dutch company owned by a Turkish businessman with ties to Turkey's president and that Inovo reviewed the draft before it was submitted to The Hill. Neither General Flynn nor his representatives disclosed this information when the essay was submitted.”
In a cover letter affixed to Flynn’s FARA registration, he states: “Because of the subject matter of Flynn Intel Group’s work for Inovo BV, which focused on Mr. Fethullah Gulen, whose extradition is sought by the Government of Turkey, the engagement could be construed to have principally benefited the Republic of Turkey.”
So what did Trump and Spicer know, and when did they know it?
On Friday, Spicer walked back his Thursday statement, acknowledging a discussion between Trump transition team lawyers and Flynn’s attorneys had occurred. Flynn was advised to seek private counsel on whether to file the FARA disclosure.
“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,” Spicer said.
“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.”
Defense One confirmed on Tuesday that Flynn’s lawyers before and after the inauguration told White House counsel that Flynn was probably going to have to file a FARA disclosure form related to his work for the Flynn Intel Group.
Spicer made it clear White House officials believe it was Flynn’s obligation to file appropriate documents. “It is not up to nor is it appropriate nor is it legal for the government to start going into private citizens, seeking advice and telling them what they have to register or not,” he said, Friday.
“There was no disclosure at the time. And the question is, is that if his counsel worked with whomever he worked with and determined that he didn't, that was up to him. But it was 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.”
All of that implies Flynn, the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, knew what he was supposed to disclose. But he admits he still does not know if he was working for Alptekin or Turkey. “Flynn Intel Group does not know whether or the extent to which the Republic of Turkey was involved with its retention by Inovo for the three month project.”