In the chaotic aftermath of FBI Director James Comey's abrupt firing on Tuesday, politicians and the rest of the DC apparatus rushed about in a flurry of statements and justifications. But the controversy supposedly at the heart of Comey's conflict with Donald Trump—the investigations into potential connections between Trump's 2016 campaign and the Russian operatives who engaged in anti–Hillary Clinton hacking—remained hanging over it all. And one of the figures at the center of those investigations is Michael Flynn.
Flynn was the national security adviser under Trump until he resigned in disgrace after lying to Vice President Mike Pence and others about his post-election conversations with a Russian ambassador. But there are still questions about Flynn's conduct and why the White House didn't fire him immediately after learning about his deception. The retired general remained on the minds of many in DC after Comey's firing. Congressman Elijah Cummings, the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, issued a statement noting, "The White House was already covering up for Michael Flynn by refusing to provide a single document to Congress."
There are other individuals reportedly being investigated, including former Trump adviser Carter Page, but Flynn has by far the highest profile, and news of probes into his activities continues to trickle out. Just before Comey's firing, the office of the US Attorney in Alexandria, Virginia, sent subpoenas to some of Flynn's business associates demanding business records from Flynn's time as a lobbyist between 2014 and 2016 in an effort to sort out payments he had received from foreign governments.
The allegations against Flynn have become convoluted at this point and involve more than just Russia. To help sort out the ongoing controversy, here's a timeline of how Flynn got into hot water:
2014: His "chaotic" management style got him fired from the DIA
In the Obama administration, Flynn rose to become the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which is the military's version of the CIA. That was the capstone of a career that included a stint as intelligence director of Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), which is in charge of elite military operations. But in 2014, Flynn was pushed out of the DIA over the course of several months, despite his own stated plan to resign the next year. According to a story in the Washington Post at the time, Flynn, who came into the DIA intending to reform the agency, ended up angering everyone. According to the Post, his "management style could be chaotic and that the scope of his plans met resistance from both superiors and subordinates."
He went on to found a lobbying firm, which will become important later.
2015: He trashed Barack Obama in public
In June of 2015, Flynn was a witness at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing where a bunch of Republican congressmen were looking into President Obama's policies in the Middle East. In that forum, Flynn criticized the military leadership of his former boss several times, at one point saying one of the president's statements "stunned" him because it revealed the US's lack of a strategy against ISIS.
This is hardly a crime, but it was unusual for a general who had just left his post to turn around and denounce his former superiors. Peter Feaver, a military scholar who was one of many people critical of Flynn at the time, told Foreign Policy, "Retired military officials enjoy a privileged position in American society in part because they are viewed as professionals who have not been politicized."
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December 2015: He had dinner with Vladimir Putin, and got paid for it
In December of 2015, Flynn gave a speech at a gala in honor of the ten-year anniversary of RT, a media outlet funded by the Russian government and usually regarded as a propaganda machine. Flynn ate dinner at the event sitting right next to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
This was a long time before Russia would be accused of influencing the 2016 election, and Flynn had not yet joined the Trump campaign in any capacity. But relations between the US and Russia were already trending down—a year before, Obama had placed sanctions on Russia in response to Russian military activity in eastern Ukraine. A former general showing up at a celebration of a Russian government mouthpiece was odd to say the least.
Even more concerning, Flynn was paid $45,000 to attend the event. As a retired Pentagon employee, accepting payment for the dinner may have violated the Constitution, Flynn's critics say—specifically the bit stating that "no person holding any office of profit or trust under them, shall, without the consent of the Congress, accept of any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever, from any king, prince or foreign State."
Also 2015: He got other payments from Russia interests
Before his dinner with Putin, Flynn had collected quite a bit of Russian money, including payment for two Washington DC events in July 2015—one for the Russian security firm Kaspersky Lab, and one for Volga-Dnepr Group, an American company owned by a Russian businessman.
2016: He also took Turkish money
By 2016, Flynn was known not just for criticizing Obama but for giving speeches denouncing Islam. That July, he took the podium at an event put on by ACT for America, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as "far and away the largest grassroots anti-Muslim group in America." At the time the Turkish military was attempting a coup against Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan; Flynn told the crowd the coup was a good thing because Turkey was moving "towards Islamism." The following month, according to the New York Times, a business linked to the Turkish government gave Flynn's lobbying firm a contract eventually worth $530,000.
Suddenly, Flynn's views on Turkey evolved. On November 8, Election Day, the Hill ran a pro-Erdoğan op-ed written by Flynn in which the former general criticized Obama's policy of "keeping Erdoğan's government at arm's length." (According to a note later appended to the op-ed, the Hill wasn't aware that Flynn was receiving money from Turkey when they published his piece.)
September 2016: He allegedly had a meeting about a Turkish dissident
According to Former CIA Director James Woolsey, while working as an unpaid adviser for Trump's campaign, Flynn took a meeting with Turkish government officials in September 2016 in his capacity as a consultant. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss Fethullah Gulen, an Erdoğan opponent living in the US; Flynn had denounced Gulen in his Hill op-ed, and Erdoğan blamed Gulen for the attempted coup. Woolsey told CNN that there was talk of getting Gulen into Turkish hands somehow at this meeting—which sounds vaguely like kidnapping—but Flynn denies this.
2016: He was allegedly an unregistered foreign agent
The law requires Americans who do lobbying work for foreign governments to register with the Justice Department. Flynn's Turkey-related activities may have fallen under that category, but even though the contract his firm signed ended in November he didn't fill out the necessary paperwork until after he was out of the administration. Being an unregistered foreign agent—admittedly a phrase that sounds more ominous than it is—is a felony, though it's rarely prosecuted. Flynn also failed to disclose the payment he got for the 2015 RT event. It's unclear whether the White House knew about his lobbying work.
December 2016: He communicated with the Russian ambassador, then lied about it
The conversations that led to Flynn's ouster are still mysterious—all we know about them is what anonymous officials have leaked to the press. But in December, during the transition between Obama and Trump, Flynn spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and reportedly talked about the sanctions Obama had imposed on Russia in retaliation for interfering in the 2016 election. An obscure law called the Logan Act forbids private citizens from conducting diplomacy, and Flynn was technically nothing more than a private citizen before Trump took office—but no one has ever been charged with breaking that law, and Flynn might not have done anything illegal during his calls to Kislyak.
But Flynn went on to apparently mislead Vice President Pence about that conversation, and in January Pence denied on TV that Flynn and Kislyak had talked about sanctions. Sally Yates, then the acting attorney general, told the White House that Flynn had in fact spoken about sanctions, but it wasn't until 18 days after her warning that the national security adviser was asked to step down—tellingly, after the Washington Post published a story about the incident. (This Tuesday, reporters asked White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer why the White House waited those 18 days, but Spicer wouldn't answer.)
2017: He may still be concealing some information about his finances
The investigation into Flynn is far from over: According to an Associated Press report out this week, Flynn and his former Turkish client dispute whether two $40,000 payments were for lobbying or not, raising yet more questions about his dealings. And whoever the next head of the FBI is, there will be lots of people working on finding out answers to those questions.
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