Donald Trump did not know that his now-dismissed national security adviser Michael Flynn had lobbied on behalf of the Turkish government and potentially needed to register as a “foreign agent”, Sean Spicer insisted on Friday.
The White House
press secretary told his daily media briefing that Flynn’s decision to register with the justice department was a personal one and not something for Trump’s lawyers to determine.
The Associated Press reported earlier on Friday that Flynn’s personal lawyer had contacted Trump transition attorneys before the inauguration about the possible filing as Flynn was being considered for appointment as Trump’s national security adviser.
Spicer was asked on Thursday whether Trump was aware Flynn was working as a “foreign agent” when he gave him the job, and replied: “I don’t believe that was known.”
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 Friday Spicer insisted that Flynn had had “impeccable credentials” for the post and dismissed concerns by saying that the retired general had complied with the law at all times. He said Flynn had simply asked the transition for legal advice on the matter and had been told to consult a personal attorney.
The AP’s report does not directly contradict Spicer’s remarks, or those of Pence, who has said he was unaware of Flynn’s foreign agent work until this week. But it suggests that some key Trump administration officials were aware before Flynn’s appointment that it was likely he would be registering as a foreign agent.
According to the AP, one of the people told of Flynn’s lobbying work for Turkey was Don McGahn, Trump’s campaign lawyer who served in the transition and later became White House counsel.
Trump has long rhetorically opposed lobbying, particularly for foreign governments, a staple of his pledge to “drain the swamp”. Thus, the disclosure that one of his top national security aides was actively working on behalf of a foreign government was particularly embarrassing for the White House. Pence said the news was “an affirmation of the president’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign”.
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 only this week 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.
The renewed controversy over Flynn came as the administration is stepping up its efforts to lobby on behalf of the American
Health Care Act (AHCA), which is intended to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise to repeal Barack Obama’s signature healthcare legislation and replace it with “something terrific”.
The AHCA would eliminate Obamacare’s individual mandate, which requires Americans to have health insurance or pay a fine and roll back the expansion of Medicaid which was a key aspect of Obamacare over a three-year-period. Instead, it would institute refundable tax credits which could be used by individuals to pay for their own health insurance.
Trump met with four House committee chairs at the White House on Friday to discuss the AHCA’s progress. Earlier in the week, the bill advanced through two congressional committees on party-line votes.
The president claimed to reporters that Obamacare was designed to fail once Obama left office. “’17 would be a disaster for Obamacare, that’s the year it was meant to explode, because Obama won’t be here,” said the president.
However, Trump still faces major challenges wooing recalcitrant conservatives about the legislation. Many Republican detractors in both chambers of Congress see the legislation as not going far enough to repeal Obamacare and have particular concerns that the bill does not promptly roll back the expansion of Medicaid. Spicer seemed to feed this concern by describing Trump as “working with Congress to begin replacing the worst parts of Obamacare and replacing it with AHCA” rather than totally repealing it.
Trump is scheduled to have several of these conservative lawmakers over to the White House next Tuesday for bowling as part of his efforts to whip votes on the legislation.