Donald Trump was unaware his former national security adviser Michael Flynn was working as a “foreign agent” when he gave him the job, according to his press secretary.
“I don’t believe that was known,” said Sean Spicer, when asked by reporters at his regular press briefing on Thursday.
Flynn resigned in February after just four weeks as national security adviser when it came to light that he had misled the vice-president, Mike Pence, about phone conversations with the Russian ambassador about sanctions in December. The resignation came after a flow of intelligence leaks revealed that he had secretly discussed sanctions with the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, and then tried to cover up the conversations.
On Wednesday, it was revealed that from September to November last year, while he was working as a top adviser to Trump’s presidential campaign, Flynn was lobbying for a firm linked to the Turkish government, earning $530,000. He and his company Flynn Intel Group Inc filed retroactive documents with the Department of Justice two days ago to register as a foreign agent.
Under the Foreign Agent Registration Act, US citizens who lobby on behalf of foreign governments or political entities must disclose their work to the justice department. Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the justice department rarely files criminal charges in such cases.
As part of Flynn’s lobbying for Inovo, a Dutch firm linked to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Flynn penned an op-ed calling for a “radical” cleric (whom the Turkish government wants to extradite) to be booted out of the US.
After Flynn joined the Trump administration, he, like other incoming officials, agreed not to lobby for five years after leaving government service and never to represent foreign governments. Flynn’s newly disclosed lobbying would not have violated that pledge because it occurred before he joined the Trump administration in January, but the pledge would preclude Flynn from ever doing the same type of work again.
Spicer was asked whether the president would still have hired Flynn as his national security adviser if he had known he had been working as a foreign agent.
“I don’t know … That’s a hypothetical,” said Spicer. “I don’t know what was discussed prior to the appointment in terms of his background, his résumé, his client base.”
“From what I’ve read, he has filed appropriate forms with the Department of Justice ; ask them and subsequently him if you have any questions about the filing,” said Spicer.
Spicer also said he was unaware whether Flynn was involved in any discussions about foreign policy regarding Turkey. “I don’t know. I don’t have anything on that,” he replied.
Opaque answers and the reply of “I don’t know” are now regular features at Spicer’s daily press conferences, which have been memorably lampooned by the actor Melissa McCarthy on NBC’s Saturday Night Live.
On Wednesday, Spicer confused reporters by initially saying “we need to find out” if Trump was the subject of an investigation by the justice department into Russia’s involvement in the US election, then clarifying that he had “no reason” to believe that Trump was.
“I just want to be really clear on one point which is there is no reason that we have to think that the president is the target of any investigation whatsoever,” he said eventually on Wednesday, possibly after looking down at a message on his lectern. “There is no reason to believe that he is the target of any investigation. I think that’s a very important point to make.”
On Thursday, reporters returned to the topic, asking the press secretary to clarify whether the administration did or did not know for sure if the president was the subject of a DoJ investigation.
“The assurance I gave you was that I’m not aware. That was 100% accurate,” said Spicer, who then seemed frustrated at the close attention paid to the exact wording of his statement.
“‘I’m not aware’, ‘I don’t believe’, you could look up in a thesaurus and find some other ways … I don’t think there’s a distinction there that’s noteworthy,” said Spicer.
“The answer is, we’re not aware,” he concluded. “I don’t know how much clearer we can be on this.”
Spicer’s frustration continued when he was quizzed about the British politician Nigel Farage’s visit to the Ecuador embassy in London to see the WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange. Was Farage, the staunchest UK political supporter of Trump and one of the leaders of the Brexit movement, visiting Assange at Trump’s behest?
“This is silly. I don’t think asking where random foreign leaders are and whether they are there … I don’t keep his schedule,” said Spicer.
“I have my own concerns here keeping track of what everyone is doing. I generally don’t worry about what’s going on across the pond,” Spicer said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report
- An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Inovo as a Danish company.