WASHINGTON ― White House spokesman Sean Spicer tied himself in knots on Friday trying to explain why President Donald Trump and his staff didn’t heed warnings last fall that incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was working as a foreign agent for the Turkish government.
“How could anyone have known” that Flynn was a foreign agent, Spicer asked at the daily press briefing, stressing that Trump was unaware of Flynn’s lobbying contract when he named the retired lieutenant general his national security adviser.
“You wouldn’t know that, because he didn’t file [paperwork with the Justice Department] until two days ago,” Spicer said. “Therefore, nobody would have known that.”
Flynn, who was ousted from Trump’s government last month after he was exposed for lying to Vice President Mike Pence about contacts with the Russian ambassador, revealed this week that his lobbying firm was paid more than $500,000 for work on behalf of Turkey’s autocratic regime. During the three months he worked as an agent for Turkey, Flynn was also serving as chief national security adviser to candidate Trump. In that role, Flynn attended classified government briefings with Trump, and helped craft his foreign policy.
Flynn did not publicly register as a foreign agent until Tuesday, more than seven months after his firm signed the lobbying contract, and three months after the contract ended.
Spicer on Friday insisted that Flynn kept Trump and other aides in the dark about his foreign lobbying. The administration’s only mistake, he said, was believing him.
“We trust that employees are filling out forms in the legal manner, we advise them to do the proper and legal thing, and we expect every employee to follow the law,” Spicer said.
This ignorance claim falls short for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that many people knew about Flynn’s lobbying work last fall, and it was reported in the media.
On Nov. 18, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) sent a letter to Pence, then the vice president-elect, detailing concerns about Flynn’s lobbying on behalf of a foreign government’s interests. Flynn even consulted a lawyer, who called a member of Trump’s transition team to disclose Flynn’s work for his Turkish client.
Spicer deflected questions about why Trump and his team went ahead and named Flynn national security adviser even after they learned of the foreign lobbying. He veered between defending Flynn and Trump’s decision to hire him, and blaming Flynn for misleading the administration.
At one point, Spicer accused a reporter of trying to “impugn” Flynn’s character by asking why the Trump administration hired him after learning about his dealings with Turkey.
“What dealings are you referring to, the fact that he had a client?” Spicer asked facetiously. “He was also head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, unbelievably qualified impeccable credentials. What is exactly are you getting at?”
Moments later, Spicer changed tack, arguing that Flynn misled the administration. “At the end of the day, when [Trump] found out that Gen. Flynn betrayed the trust of the vice president, he let him go,” Spicer said. “The president has high standards for everyone that works in the administration.”
Despite controversy that has outlived Flynn’s brief tenure in the Trump administration, Spicer said the White House still has no way of knowing if its employees are telling the truth.
“I can’t tell you that every single person has done everything,” he said.