Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.
When he started investigating General Michael T. Flynn, Special Counsel Robert Mueller concentrated on his income and undisclosed contacts with Russian officials. Now, however, Muellerâs investigation has broadened to include Flynnâs business with Turkey. Flynn faces possible fraud and money-laundering charges for failing to disclose a payment of $530,000 from the Turkish government. (The Foreign Agent Registration Act, FARA, requires disclosure of work for foreign governments, including details about compensation.) Flynn could also face conspiracy and kidnapping charges for allegedly negotiating a payment of $15 million to deliver to Turkey Fethullah GÃ¼len, an Islamic cleric and political foe of President Recep Tayyip ErdoÄan. GÃ¼len has lived in exile in the United States since 1999; he was granted permanent residence in 2008. The Turkish government accuses him of orchestrating the coup attempt in July 2016 and imprisoned thousands of his followers.
If indicted on these charges, Flynn could end up in jail for a long time. (Lawyers for FlynnÂ have deniedÂ the kidnapping allegations, which were first reported byÂ The Wall Street Journal.) Alternatively, Flynn and his son, Michael Flynn Jr., who works with him at the Flynn Intel Group, a lobbying firm in Virginia, can avoid jail time by becoming cooperating witnesses in Muellerâs investigation. Flynn was an integral part of the Trump campaign and briefly served the Trump administration as national security adviser. If the Trump campaign colluded with Russiansâfor example, to coordinate the release of hacked emails embarrassing to Hillary Clinton and a social media campaign to influence votersâFlynn would probably know. Mueller has already brought charges against Trumpâs former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, his associate Rick Gates, and a campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadoupoulos. Flynn may be next.
Flynn has a history of cutting corners and breaking rules. Flynn failed to disclose income from three Russian companies, including a 2016 speaking fee of $45,000 from RT, an official propaganda arm of the Kremlin. He failed to disclose contact with Russiaâs ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, to FBI investigators conducting a background check to renew Flynnâs security clearance. Intercepts of Flynnâs phone calls with KislyakÂ reportedly showed that Flynn discussedÂ sanctions on Russia and suggested the possibility of sanctions reliefÂ once Trump became president.Â Flynn also failed to discloseÂ his involvement in a $100 billion nuclear energy deal, which he explored during an undisclosed trip to Israel and Egypt in 2015.
Flynnâs work for the Turkish government is also under investigation. The Flynn Intel Group was paid $530,000 by Inovo BV, a thinly capitalized Dutch company that serves as a front for Inovo Turkije, whose principal, Ekim Alptekin,Â is a close associateÂ of President ErdoÄan. Public records in the Netherlands confirmed that Inovo BV is a shell company. Flynn should have known that Inovo BV was a pass-through and, given Alptekinâs close relationship with ErdoÄan, that Inovo BVâs funds originated from the Turkish government. Flynn hid the origins of the money and the fact that his payment was funneled through a third party. When details of the contract surfaced inÂ press reports, Flynn acknowledged his service for the Turkish government by belatedly registering under FARA.
The contract with Inovo BV required Flynn to lobby on appropriations bills for the departments of State and Defense. Flynnâs dutiesÂ also includedÂ keeping his client informed about âthe transition between President Obama and President-Elect Trump.â In effect, Flynn was also hired to conduct a smear campaign of GÃ¼len.Â In an article published by FlynnÂ inÂ The HillÂ on election day, November 8, 2016, Flynn referred to GÃ¼len as a âshady Islamic mullah residing in Pennsylvania.â He wrote: âTo professionals in the intelligence community, the stamp of terror is all over Mullah GÃ¼lenâs statements.â¦ Washington is hoodwinked by this masked source of terror and instability nestled comfortably in our own backyard.â Flynn endorsed Turkeyâs demand for extradition. âThe forces of radical Islam derive their ideology from radical clerics like GÃ¼len, who is running a scam. We should not provide him safe haven.â
Flynn was apparently willing to consider more drastic action. James Woolsey, a former director of the CIA,Â attended a meetingÂ with Flynn in September 2016 during which Flynn discussed abducting GÃ¼len and delivering him to Turkish authorities at the Imrali Island Prison off the coast of Turkey.Â The meeting was also attendedÂ by Berat Albayrak, ErdoÄanâs son-in-law, and Turkeyâs foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu. WoolseyÂ describedÂ the proposed extradition outside of the US legal system as âa covert step in the dead of night to whisk this guy away.â He and Flynn were both working for the Trump campaign at the time.
Earlier this month,Â The Wall Street JournalÂ reportedÂ that Flynn and his son rejoined discussions about GÃ¼len at a meeting in December in New York at the 21 Club, where Flynn was offered as much as $15 million to deliver GÃ¼len. The Turkish government denies that this meeting took place; Flynnâs lawyers also called theÂ JournalÂ report false. If the story is true, however, Flynn and his son could be prosecuted under the RICO law (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations).
Despite Flynnâs pattern of illegal and unethical behavior, President Trump took extraordinary steps to protect him. On February 14, 2017, Trump met with the then-FBI director, James Comey, in the Oval Office. âI hope you can let this go,â said Trump,Â alluding to Comeyâs investigationÂ of Flynn. Comey took it as an order, but did not comply. Trump fired Comey on May 9.
Trump had alreadyÂ fired, in March, Preet Bharara, the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Among the cases Bharara was pursuing was the prosecution of Reza Zarrab, a gold trader and ErdoÄan crony charged with violating US sanctions on Iran.Â According to the indictmentÂ published shortly after Bharara was fired, Zarrabâs economic crimes involve illicit gold sales on behalf of the Iranian government, which were deposited into Turkeyâs HalkBank; the proceeds helped support Iranâs nuclear program and business enterprises linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Mehmet Hakan Attila, a Halkbank executive,Â was also arrested, on charges of conspiringÂ with Zarrab to evade US sanctions against Iran.
It is not unusual for an incoming president to replace US attorneys. But the manner and timing of Bhararaâs dismissal raised red flags. Trump acted improperly toward Bharara,Â initiating direct contact byÂ calling Bharara three times. Bharara, who had jurisdiction to investigate suspected criminal conduct in business in New York, rightly refused to take the calls.Â Bharara believes thatÂ Trump would have asked him âto do something inappropriate,â had they spoken. Trump removed Bharara afterÂ having assured himÂ in November 2016 that he would retain his job. Turkey has invested heavily in efforts to influence the US government, spending millions of dollars annually to hire former members of Congress as lobbyists, sponsoring junkets for members of Congress in the Turkey Caucus, and making large contributions to think-tanks such as the Atlantic Council. Was Turkeyâs influence a factor in Trumpâs decision to fire Bharara?
ErdoÄan appears intensely interested in the Zarrab case, repeatedly asking US officials to drop the charges against him. An FBI source told me that the allegations against Zarrab include selling a ton of gold each week and taking a 15 percent commission. AÂ superseding indictment filed by prosecutors in September chargesÂ that Zarrab conspired with senior Turkish government officials, including ErdoÄanâs then-minister of the economy, in a scheme to dodge US sanctions on Iran that involved âlaundering funds in connection with those illegal transactions, including millions of dollars in bribe payments.â
Zarrab hired Michael Mukasey, an attorney general in the George W. Bush administration, and Rudy Giuliani, a former Republican mayor of New York City and a notorious hard-liner on Iran, in March.Â According to Zarrabâs attorney, Benjamin Brafman, Giuliani and Mukasey were not hired to participate in Zarrabâs legal defense team; they were paid instead âto explore a potential disposition of the criminal chargesââin other words, to get the case closed down by influencing senior US government officials. That means, in effect, going over the head of prosecutors and bypassing the normal plea bargain channelsâthereby undermining the administration of justice. Greenberg Traurig, Giulianiâs firm,Â is a registered agentÂ for the Turkish government. Both Giuliani and Mukasey, who acted as advisers to the Trump campaign, appear to be cashing in on their connections to the White House.
The Zarrab case is a further example of Turkish efforts to circumvent the US legal system, but lobbying to get the charges dropped in the case has become a foolâs errand. Reports suggest that ZarrabÂ recently agreed to actÂ as a cooperating witness. Judicial interference, however, is part of an established pattern of conduct by Turkey, which has also become adept at buying influence in Washington. Turkey has many reasons for its largesse: it wants to deflect attention from its support to Syrian jihadis, official corruption, the killing of Kurds, and the systematic arrest of opponents under the guise of fighting terrorism.
The United States needs leadership that is steely-eyed toward Turkey as well as toward Russia. Yet Turkeyâs influence-buying efforts are paying off. The Trump administration ignores ErdoÄanâs human rights abuses and election irregularities. The White House turned a blind eye when ErdoÄanâs security guards beat up US citizens outside the Turkish ambassadorâs D.C. residence in May. The Trump administration was virtually silent whenÂ Turkey bought S-400 anti-aircraft missilesÂ from Russia for $2.6 billion. Trump calls ErdoÄan âa friend of mineâ and praises his job performance,Â saying: âHeâs getting very high marks.â Trump hasÂ his own interestsÂ to think aboutâstakes in major real-estate developments in Istanbul, as well as in a luxury furniture company in Turkey.
Trumpâs disparaging of the US justice system undermines judicial independence. He has already issued a controversial pardon for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of disobeying a federal judgeâs order. Knowing there is a potential presidential pardon in the works could dissuade Flynn from telling the truth as a cooperating witness. Efforts to subvert our democracyâby enemies foreign and domesticâmay succeed unless the rule of law is fully and effectively applied in the case of Michael Flynn.