One Friday last July, as members of the Turkish military were staging a coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Michael Flynn, the retired lieutenant general who went on to become Donald Trump’s first national-security adviser, gave a speech in Cleveland. The event was organized by a local chapter of act for America, a self-described “grassroots national security organization” that regards Muslims with considerable suspicion. “There’s an ongoing coup going on in Turkey right now,” Flynn said in his remarks. “Right now!” The country, Flynn said, was heading “towards Islamism” under Erdoğan, and the military was trying to preserve Turkey’s secular identity. The audience applauded the putschists.
A day later, the coup failed; Erdoğan proceeded to round up thousands of alleged plotters and sympathizers, including military officers, judges, and teachers. A Times editorial accused the Turkish President of staging a “counter-coup” and acting “increasingly authoritarian.” Such characterizations tend to unnerve tourists and foreign investors. In early August, Ekim Alptekin, a Turkish businessman and the chairman of the Turkey-U.S. Business Council, contacted Flynn’s consulting firm, the Flynn Intel Group, about repairing Turkey’s image in the United States. Flynn, whom I profiled for the magazine in February, was one of Trump’s most prominent supporters on the campaign trail, and often accused Hillary Clinton of “influence peddling.” Still, he agreed to help Alptekin, in exchange for a six-hundred-thousand-dollar contract.
But, last week, Flynn—who was forced to resign as Trump’s national-security adviser on February 13th—refiled his paperwork, to acknowledge that his work for Alptekin may, in fact, have benefitted the Turkish government. The disclosure put Flynn’s work with Alptekin in a new light, raising new questions about Flynn’s judgment—during both the campaign and his brief time in the Administration—and about the Administration’s handling of his entanglements.
Flynn’s work for Alptekin began in earnest in mid-September, when the businessman arranged a meeting in New York between Flynn and the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, at a New York hotel. Turkey’s energy minister, Berat Albayrak, who is also Erdoğan’s son-in-law, was there, too. On Flynn’s side, James Woolsey, a former director of the C.I.A. and a member of Flynn Intel Group’s advisory board, attended, as did Brian McCauley, a former F.B.I. agent who worked closely with Flynn in Iraq. (Woolsey told me that he had only “perfunctory involvement” with the Flynn Intel Group and “received no compensation.”) Though the full breadth of the group’s conversation is not known, the same source told me that the Turks sought, among other things, Flynn’s assistance in maligning Fethullah Gülen, a self-exiled cleric who lives in Pennsylvania, whom Erdoğan blamed for the attempted coup. Subsequently, the Flynn Intel Group paid S.G.R., a lobbying and public-relations firm, forty thousand dollars to work on a project that included designing a graphic—“Gulenopoly”—characterizing Gülen as “the Mula Mullah” whose “clandestine” movement had “mastered the game of political and economic influence.”
Yet it seemed that Alptekin was expecting more from Flynn and his colleagues. On November 2nd, Alptekin met with Bijan Kian, the vice-president of the Flynn Intel Group, and McCauley, among others, at the Flynn Intel Group’s offices, in Alexandria, Virginia. (Flynn was not present.) Alptekin stressed their need to produce something—and soon, since Election Day was approaching and the polls suggested that Trump was certain to lose. “We have to generate something to show Turkey how successful we can be,” Alptekin said, according to the source. “What success can we show them now?”
A week later, an op-ed appeared in The Hill, a Washington, D.C., newspaper, authored by Flynn. It heralded Turkey as “our greatest ally” against the Islamic State; accused Obama of “keeping Erdogan’s government at arm’s length”; and described Gülen as a “false façade,” a closet supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood—the Islamist political movement founded in Egypt—and “Turkey’s Osama Bin Laden.”
Nine days after winning the election, Trump appointed Flynn as his national-security adviser. The following day, Bill McGinley, a law partner at Jones Day who advised Trump during the campaign and transition, and who is now the White House Cabinet secretary, spoke on the phone with Kian and others working with Flynn to review the particulars of Flynn’s piece in The Hill. When asked about the article, Kian said that Flynn wrote it himself, and that it was unrelated to his work for Alptekin. “Some people seemed skeptical as to whether Flynn had really woken up the day before the election and felt compelled to write an op-ed defending Erdoğan,” the source said. “McGinley wanted to know if Turkish government dollars touched that op-ed.” (Flynn was not on the call.)
According to the Washington Post, Don McGahn, now the White House Counsel, was also notified during the transition of Flynn’s potential ties with Turkey. (In response to questions about McGinley’s conversation with Flynn Intel Group executives, the White House said, in a statement, “The transition team advised Flynn, like numerous other appointees and nominees, to retain his own counsel to ensure his own compliance with legal obligations. The transition was subsequently informed that Flynn retained counsel.”)
The Flynn Intel Group’s contract with Alptekin was terminated in November, though Turkey’s interests may have remained on Flynn’s mind. A few days before Trump assumed office, Flynn spoke with Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, to discuss her team’s ongoing initiatives against isis. An element of their plan for taking Raqqa, isis’s self-proclaimed capital, entailed aligning militarily with the Y.P.G., an armed Kurdish group that the Turkish government regards as terrorists. According to the Washington Post, Flynn told Rice not to commit to that plan. “Don’t approve it,” Flynn said. “We’ll make the decision.” Once Trump took office, the plan was put on hold.
Meanwhile, by late January, Flynn’s attorneys were again exploring the prospect of refiling under fara. They were preparing the paperwork when news emerged about contact, before the Inauguration, between Flynn and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., and how Flynn had supposedly misled Vice-President Mike Pence about that contact. In the wake of the scandal, Flynn was fired—but the fara discussions continued.
Three weeks ago, Flynn’s attorney Robert Kelner, a partner at Covington & Burling, a firm that specializes in political-law compliance, met with Justice Department lawyers. The Justice officials later urged that, in order to comply with the law, Flynn should register as a foreign agent: Flynn’s work for Alptekin may not have been at the behest of the Turkish government, but it served Ankara’s interest.
Last week, after Flynn’s foreign-agent status became public, Pence described the news as “an affirmation of the President’s decision to ask General Flynn to resign,” and said that the reports of Flynn’s work for Turkey had been “the first I’d heard of it.” But on November 18th—the same day McGinley spoke with Flynn Intel Group’s executives—Elijah Cummings, a congressman from Maryland, addressed a letter to Pence, expressing concern about Flynn’s “being paid to lobby the U.S. government on behalf of a foreign government’s interests.” As more details about Flynn’s work become public—on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that he was paid tens thousands of dollars by Russian companies as recently as 2015—it may get harder for the Administration to maintain that he was operating in a vacuum.