The repercussions of Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia don’t go away. Michael Flynn is a part of that relationship, although it is not clear how much of his interaction with Russian officials was directed by Trump. Trump keeps interactions at arm’s length so that he can claim he is not responsible for his administration’s wrongdoing. Flynn had connections to Russia before he became part of Trump’s machine.
Attorney General William Barr has requested that the case be dropped against Flynn for lying to federal agents, to which Flynn pleaded guilty. Judge Emmet Sullivan plans to open the case to amicus curiae briefs and has appointed a retired federal judge to argue against the government’s case for dismissal.
Acting DNI Richard Grenell has released records of requests for “unmasking” that resulted in the legal action against Flynn and the discovery that Flynn was lying to Vice President Mike Pence, for which he was fired by Trump. Those records raise further questions of what Flynn was doing.
Flynn had a number of irons in the fire. From a Washington Post summary:
- Flynn used his social media accounts to spread Q-Anon-type conspiracy theories.
- Flynn was paid $45,000 to appear at a 2015 gala in celebration of Russian propaganda network RT (he sat at Vladimir Putin’s table during the dinner). Former senior military officials are supposed to receive Pentagon permission before accepting such payments; Flynn apparently did not.
- While working as an adviser to the Trump campaign in 2016, Flynn was also secretly working on behalf of the Turkish government, being paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to advocate Turkey’s interests. This consisted, in large part, of seeking to discredit Fethullah Gulen, a dissident Turkish cleric now living in the United States. On Election Day in 2016, Flynn wrote an op-ed for the Hill blasting Gulen and praising Turkey, but did not disclose that he was being paid to do so.
- Flynn also failed to register as a foreign agent as required by law, only doing so retroactively after he was fired as national security adviser in 2017.
- During the transition after the 2016 election, Flynn maneuvered to delay a U.S. military operation against the Islamic State, an operation Turkey opposed because it involved a partnership between the U.S. and Kurdish forces.
President Barack Obama warned Trump against hiring Flynn, who was forced out of his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency because of insubordination, making up “Flynn facts,” and generally paranoid behavior. He also promulgated Islamophobia.
Flynn pleaded guilty to two charges of lying to federal investigators about his December 29, 2016, phone conversations with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States. At that time, Flynn had been named by Trump as his National Security Advisor.
The list of requestors declassified by Grenell, however, is for the time period 8 November 2016 to 31 January 2017. In that list are 39 requests before the dates of those telephone calls and 8 after. The requests bunch around December 14-16.* We do not know the subject(s) that raised the interest of officials across several agencies.
Those mid-month requests came from John Brennan, CIA Director (2); James Comey, FBI Director (1); Treasury Department officials (6); John Tefft, Ambassador to Russia (1); NATO officials (8); Executive Briefer, DOE Intelligence and Counterintelligence Office (2); Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Deputy Secretary of Energy (1); Chief Syria Group (2); Deputy Assistant Director of NEMC (1) (National Media Exploitation Center, DNI?); Patrick Conlon, director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs (1); two marked only COS and DCOS (Chief of Staff and Deputy?); and two from CMO (Chief Management Officer DOD?).
It’s possible that these unmasking requests were in reference to more than one incident. The requests from Brennan and Comey could have been about anything. The requests from the Department of the Treasury likely had to do with sanctions. Anyone having questionable conversations with the Russian Ambassador to the United states would be of interest to the American Ambassador to Russia. NATO officials might have been concerned about Flynn’s ties to Turkey.
A topic on which a number of these requestors might converge is Flynn’s venture with a group trying to sell civilian nuclear power in the Middle East. The House Oversight Committee looked into that effort in late 2018 in response to a whistleblower complaint in June 2017 and issued an interim report, which shows that the venture was quite active after the election through early 2018.
The origins of the venture go back at least to 2015, when Flynn partnered with Alex Copson, a nuclear entrepreneur who had been pushing big ideas since 1997. The plan they came up with was grandiose – they called it “A Marshall Plan for the Middle East.” It combined commerce with national security policy. Russia and China would work with the United States to sell 40 power reactors to Middle Eastern countries; Israel would benefit from the power generation. Iran and its allies would be excluded, and Russia would split from Iran in order to sell reactors.
Jeff Stein described the plan in 2017, and I’ve written a description from original documents. The plan changed over time, most significantly eliminating Russia and China as suppliers. A large component of the plan was a private security force to guard the reactors. Early claims were that the program would cost the United States nothing, but the activities that the House Oversight Committee looked into had to do with acquiring US government funding.
One of the odd things about this venture is that only one of those involved in it had any expertise in nuclear power. Nor did the group do any groundwork to bring in reactor manufacturers from the United States, Russia or China. Although at one time Saudi Arabia expressed interest in buying 16 nuclear reactors, plummeting oil prices made that impossible.
They seem not to have understood that the US government must approve sales of nuclear technology to other countries, or to have believed that they could strongarm those sales through without approval. That last is what the House Oversight Committee investigated and is remarkably similar to the emergency declaration for arms sales to Saudi Arabia that the State Department Inspector General is said to be looking into. If it were discussed in those telephone calls, it would have drawn the attention of the Departments of Treasury and Energy as well as law enforcement agencies.
The House Oversight Committee investigation found that IP3 had a plan ready to go and expected it to start right after the 2017 inauguration, with explicit support and promotion by the Trump administration. In December 2017, it looked like furthering this venture was part of Flynn’s motivation to have sanctions on Russia removed. The whistleblowers’ letter quoted Alex Copson as saying that “General Flynn was making sure that sanctions would be ‘ripped up’ as one of his first orders of business and that this would allow money to start flowing into the project.”
One of the principals of the company involved, IP3, is Robert “Bud” McFarlane, who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal while he was Ronald Reagan’s National Security Advisor and pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress. He was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $20,000 fine but was pardoned by President George H.W. Bush. Attorney General (then and now) William Barr recommended that pardon.
The willingness of the group to try to direct US foreign policy in the Middle East via a scheme that would make money for them would raise the concerns of most in that unmasking list. But keep in mind that other topics may have been involved in Flynn’s conversations.
Lindsey Graham has sent a letter to Acting DNI Richard Grenell and Attorney General Barr requesting the names of officials who requested unmasking of the names of Trump campaign or transition team members and the reasons given for those requests. Mark Warner, ranking Democratic member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has sent a letter to Grenell requesting the underlying reports for which the unmasking occurred. It now appears that Flynn’s identity was not masked in the reports about Flynn’s phone conversations with Kislyak.
*My attention was drawn to these dates by Susan Simpson’s tweet thread.