If former national security advisor Michael Flynn is indeed cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, the conversation with prosecutors likely includes information about clandestine lobbying for foreign powers by officials connected to Trump. This reflects a deeper corruption in Washington, D.C. beyond the self-interested actions of a single individual. Accepting foreign cash to influence U.S. policy has long besmirched both political parties. It is a recurring theme in Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation.
Last March, after Flynn was forced from his position in the White House, he publicly revealed Turkish interests had secretly paid him. Flynn’s company took $530,000 in August 2016 from a Turkish businessman in part to lobby the US government to extradite the cleric, Fethullah Gulen. Despite the payment, Flynn failed at that time to register as a foreign agent as required by law.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan blames Gülen, who lives in Pennsylvania, for the attempted coup against him in the summer of 2016. Gülen’s followers have indeed been influential in Turkey’s government bureaucracy and throughout Turkish society. They represent a force in Turkey outside of Erdogan’s control. However, the Turkish government did not produce sufficient evidence of wrongdoing to convince the Obama administration to extradite Gülen to a country where the justice system is increasingly rigged to favor the executive branch and torture is common.
On the day Trump was elected president, the Hill published a hyperbolic op-ed by Flynn, who was at the time a Trump campaign surrogate secretly shilling for Turkey. Flynn compared Gülen to terrorists like Osama bin Laden and urged his extradition.
“The forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like Gülen, who is running a scam,” wrote Flynn. “We should not provide him safe haven. In this crisis, it is imperative that we remember who our real friends are.”
The Wall Street Journal has reported that the FBI is investigating whether Flynn was prepared to do much more than pen an opinion piece. He and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., allegedly participated in discussions about kidnapping Gülen and ferrying him via private jet to the Turkish prison island of Imrali. The Flynns allegedly offered to provide this service in return for $15 million.
Flynn was not the only influential member of the Washington establishment advocating for Gülen’s extradition. Former U.S. Ambassador to Turkey beginning in the Bush administration, James F. Jeffrey, also became a prominent voice promoting the Erdogan line. Jeffrey offered advice to the Trump transition team on Turkey from his perch at the nonprofit Washington Institute. He urged the new administration to extradite Gülen to reset relations with Turkey.
A confidential diplomatic cable leaked by Wikileaks from 2009 shows Jeffrey wrestling with the Gülen issue as ambassador. In the document, he details the history and scope of Gülen’s influence in Turkey. Jeffrey was clearly wary of Gülen but did not recommend the cleric’s deportation.
By August 2016, Jeffrey’s position had evolved. He is quoted in a Turkish newspaper exactly a month after the coup that “most indications, not just the Turkish government’s statements, point to the Gülenist movement,” as behind the uprising.
Just how far Jeffrey was willing to go to present the case can be seen in another Wikileaks release, this one from the private emails of Mehmet Ali Yalcindag, a wealthy Turkish business partner of Donald Trump. The two collaborated on the Trump Towers Istanbul. Yalcindag married into one of Turkey’s most prominent families, which controls media, real estate and oil interests through the Dogan Group. The family conglomerate has been under attack by Erdogan for its media coverage of the regime and over allegations of tax evasion.
Yalcindag, who is desperate to curry favor with Erdogan, forwarded an email with an opinion piece written by Jeffrey that was published in the German newspaper Die Zeit. The article forcefully called for the extradition of Gülen.
“Interesting insights about Gulen,” said the forwarded email. “The German public is slowly starting to understand the situation!”
Yalcindag sent the email to Serhat Albayrak, the brother of Erdogan’s son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, who is the Turkish minister of energy and is mentioned as a potential successor to Erdogan.
Six months later when U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson traveled to Turkey, Jeffrey was quoted in a CBS News report accusing the Gülenists of being a threat to the US relationship with Turkey and the stability of the Middle East. Interestingly, Jeffrey had worked as an advisor to ExxonMobile when Tillerson was CEO of the oil company.
Reached by phone, Jeffrey said that he has not received money from the Turkish government or people acting on its behalf. He is not registered as a foreign agent nor does he have any plans to do so. Jeffrey denied having any contact with Michael Flynn. While he cannot provide proof of Gülen’s involvement in the coup attempt, Jeffrey holds fast to the desirability of extraditing the cleric.
Past efforts to influence U.S. policy by foreign governments and their proxies has shown that there are any number of ways to spread the money around to achieve the desired result. Case in point was the Azerbaijan America Alliance, for which former Indiana Republican Congressman Dan Burton, acted as the front man. The Alliance spent more than $12 million showering cash on politicians in Washington, lobbying for them to be friendly to Azerbaijan. It held gala dinners with attendees like Speaker of the House John Boehner and met privately with Senator John McCain and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. With the avalanche of money came fulsome praise for the corrupt and autocratic regime from both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
It is clear that the existing rules to bring some transparency to the policy-for-sale ethos in Washington has failed miserably.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act was first passed to flush out Nazi propaganda back in 1938. It requires agents representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or quasi-political capacity to disclose that relationship, including financial details. Potential penalties include fines and jail time. Unfortunately, the Justice Department sees it as voluntary and hasn’t bothered to enforce the law. Circa reported in March that the DOJ had only prosecuted four cases involving violation of the law in the past ten years.
Special counsel Mueller is signaling a break with tradition.
Unregistered lobbying was the lynchpin of Mueller’s indictment against Paul Manafort and Richard Gates. Mueller charged that Manafort and Gates had created a limited liability company to engage in lobbying, consulting and public relations for the Government of Ukraine. The alleged laundering of money by Manafort, some $18 million, was to hide the profits from his work as an unregistered foreign agent.
It’s worth quoting from the indictment at length on the matter:
It is illegal to act as an agent of a foreign principal engaged in certain United States influence activities without registering the affiliation. Specifically, a person who engages in lobbying or public relations work in the United States (hereafter collectively referred to as lobbying) for a foreign principal such as the Govennnent of Ukraine or the Party of Regions is required to provide a detailed written registration statement to the United States Department of Justice. The filing, made under oath, must disclose the name of the foreign principal, the financial payments to the lobbyist, and the measures undertaken for the foreign principal, among other information. A person required to make such a filing must further make in all lobbying material a “conspicuous statement” that the materials are distributed on behalf of the foreign principal, among other things. The filing thus permits public awareness and evaluation of the activities of a lobbyist who acts as an agent of a foreign power or foreign political party in the United States.