Former national security adviser Michael Flynn probably broke the law by failing to disclose foreign income he earned from Russia and Turkey, the heads of the House Oversight Committee said Tuesday.
Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), said they believe Flynn neither received permission nor fully disclosed income he earned for a speaking engagement in Russia and lobbying activities on behalf of Turkey when he applied to reinstate his security clearance. They reached this conclusion after viewing two classified memos and a disclosure form in a private briefing Tuesday morning.
“Personally I see no evidence or no data to support the notion that General Flynn complied with the law,” Chaffetz told reporters after the briefing.
Said Cummings: “He was supposed to get permission, he was supposed to report it, and he didn’t. This is a major problem.”
Chaffetz and Cummings stressed that as a former military officer, Flynn would have needed special permission for his appearance at a gala sponsored by RT, the Russian-government-funded television station, for which he was paid $45,000. For his work lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government, he was paid more than $500,000.
“It does not appear that was ever sought, nor did he get that permission,” Chaffetz said.
The Republican later added that while Flynn was clearly not in compliance with the law, “it would be a little strong to say that he flat-out lied.”
Democrats immediately pounced on the news, claiming that it was yet another drip of damaging information implicating Trump world’s relationship with Russia.
“The disturbing news that General Flynn may have violated the law in connection with his security clearance may be just the tip of the iceberg,” declared Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Tuesday.
“These revelations highlight the importance of the intelligence committee working in a bipartisan way to request and receive documents with respect to any financial arrangements Flynn and others in similar positions may have had with foreign governments.”
Flynn’s omission could cost him. Violations of this nature can be punished by up to five years of jail time, though President Trump’s Justice Department ultimately would make the decision about whether to investigate or charge him.
Chaffetz stressed that the government ought to “recover the money” that was paid to Flynn by foreign entities — a figure that would at least be in the tens of thousands of dollars.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer would not say whether Flynn may have broken the law.
“That would be a question for him and the law-enforcement agency. I don’t know what he filled out or what he did or didn’t do,” Spicer told reporters at the daily press briefing. “He filled that form out before coming here, so it would be up to the committee and other authorities to look at that.”
He insisted the Trump administration had provided all documents requested by Congress to the committee.
“Every document they asked for it’s my understanding they’ve gotten,” he said.
He added that the committee’s request for a record of Flynn’s conversations with foreign contacts was “unwieldy,” arguing it was Flynn’s job “to talk with foreign counterparts on a daily basis. To document every call that he may have made is not exactly a request that is able to be filled.”
While it will not be up to the Oversight Committee to impose punishment, panel leaders pledged to pursue the matter, indicating a preference for making the documents the lawmakers reviewed public.
The future of any action may rely on a new Oversight Committee chairman. Chaffetz announced last week that he would resign from Congress in 2018 and perhaps leave much sooner — setting off a scramble to replace him on the House’s chief investigative panel.
Flynn could be charged with a crime for lying on the background-check form, and it could cause problems with his future ability to obtain security clearances. But the law requires investigators to show that he “knowingly and willfully” made false statements, setting a high bar. Prosecutors would not be able to make a case if Flynn’s forms were inaccurate by mere carelessness or honest mistake.
The FBI could open an investigation into the matter, and if they have not already, Congress could presumably ask them to do so. Chaffetz himself did just that after FBI Director James B. Comey said he would need such a referral to explore whether Hillary Clinton committed perjury when she testified before a congressional committee about her use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
The documents that committee members reviewed Tuesday came from the Defense Intelligence Agency and showed that Flynn had not declared any income from Russian or Turkish sources, despite the fact that the forms were filed about a month after Flynn’s reported trip to Moscow to speak at the RT gala, Cummings said.
“As has previously been reported, General Flynn briefed the Defense Intelligence Agency, a component agency of DoD, extensively regarding the RT speaking event trip both before and after the trip, and he answered any questions that were posed by DIA concerning the trip during those briefings,” said Flynn counsel Rob Kelner of Covington & Burling.
Flynn, a Trump campaign adviser and the first national security adviser of the Trump administration, was ousted in February after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Pence about his talks at the end of 2016 with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
The FBI and the House and Senate intelligence committees are investigating Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election, supposedly to help Trump. They are also exploring possible links between Trump aides and Russian officials.
Former acting attorney general Sally Yates and former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. are scheduled to testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on May 8. The House Intelligence Committee has also invited Yates and Clapper to testify in a public hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
The House probe in particular has been beset with controversy after the Intelligence Committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), publicly signaled that he had seen information suggesting the identity of Trump or members of his transition team may have been revealed in classified surveillance reports.
The Oversight Committee asked the White House in March for documents pertaining to Flynn’s security-clearance applications, the vetting that occurred before he was named national security adviser, and all of his contacts with foreign agents, including any payments received. In particular, the committee heads requested to see a disclosure form known as the SF86, on which Flynn was obligated to declare any foreign income.
On April 19, the White House sent the committee a reply, stating that any documents related to Flynn from before Jan. 20 — the day Trump took office — were not in its possession and that any documents from after that date did not seem relevant to the committee’s investigation.
“The White House has refused to provide this committee with a single piece of paper in response to our bipartisan request,” Cummings said.
He noted that lawmakers would be interested in seeing documents that could shed light on what Flynn told the White House and his foreign contacts before he was named national security adviser, and what led to his exit less than a month later.
During the transition period, Flynn told the incoming White House that he might need to register as a foreign agent. Cummings would not go so far as to accuse the White House of intentionally obstructing the committee’s investigation of Flynn.
The committee is not likely to pull Flynn before the panel for testimony — despite Cummings’s insistence that it “should be holding a hearing with General Flynn.”
Chaffetz said he would “highly doubt” that the committee would call Flynn to testify, deferring any command for such an audience to the House Intelligence Committee.