Flynn juggled Trump campaign role with foreign lobbying, jurors told

By Josh Gerstein

Michael Flynn was actively involved in his firm’s Turkey-related lobbying in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, while he was also serving as Donald Trump’s top foreign policy adviser, jurors were told Wednesday at the trial of Flynn’s ex-business partner.

Flynn’s foreign lobbying role during the 2016 election has been central to the case against Bijan Rafiekian, who is on trial for secretly working as an agent of Turkey in the U.S. Flynn’s consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group, was hired during the election to publicly disparage U.S.-based Turkish cleric, Fetullah Gulen, that the Turkish government blames for orchestrating an attempted coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

On Wednesday, Michael Boston, the manager of the Turkey efforts at Flynn’s firm, testified that Flynn was on an October 7, 2016, conference call where the Turkish businessman who commissioned the $600,000 project complained then-candidate Trump wasn’t being supportive enough towards Turkey or doing enough to expose Gulen.

Jurors saw Boston’s handwritten and typed notes from the conversation.

“Republican Presidential candidate has not defended subject's home country publicly. He should specifically ask questions about subject's operations and funding,” said one memo recounting the feedback from the Turkish businessman spearheading the project, Ekim Alptekin.

Prosecutor John Gibbs asked Boston what Flynn’s relationship was with the GOP candidate at that time.

“He was working on … Trump’s campaign,” replied Boston, a retired U.S. Army Reserve officer hired by Flynn Intel Group to oversee the hastily-executed project aimed at prompting the U.S. to extradite or deport Gulen, who has lived in Pennsylvania for two decades.

Prosecutors trying the case against Rafiekian in federal court in Alexandria, Va., did not dwell on indications that the $600,000 contract may have been intended, at least in part, to influence candidate Trump and a potential future Trump administration.

However, earlier Wednesday, jurors heard more testimony to support that notion. Retired FBI agent Brian McCauley, who was working on the project, said when he attended a September 2016 meeting in New York involving Flynn and various senior Turkish officials, Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavosolgu began the session by mentioning the ongoing U.S. election campaign.

“I remember the foreign minister wished Gen. Flynn and Trump good luck in the election and that he wished the Turkish government would be working closely with the new administration,” said McCauley, who once held a top FBI post dealing with international matters.

Rafiekian was indicated last December on two felony charges: acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign government in the U.S. and conspiring to break that same law and provide false information to the Justice Department in a Foreign Agent Registration Act filing belatedly submitted in 2017.

McCauley recounted to the jury that early in the project he was told by Rafiekian that he had come up with a way to avoid filing under FARA, and to instead file under another law that allows for less detailed public reports, the Lobbying Disclosure Act.

The ex-FBI official said Rafiekian said: “The General wants me to file with DOJ, but I have a better idea.” McCauley said it involved filing with either Congress or the Commerce Department, but he was not certain.

Rafiekian said it was important that the project remain “under the radar to avoid detection by Tony Podesta and other members of Congress who are favorable to Gulen.” Podesta was a high-profile lobbyist but has never been a member of Congress.

After apologizing to the women in the courtroom, the ex-FBI agent testified that he emphasized in very blunt terms to Rafiekian that it would be unwise to try to get around the foreign-agent law.

“I told him, “I wouldn’t f--- around with that,” McCauley said.

Retired FBI agents that the Flynn firm hired to investigate Gulen and his followers said they were uncomfortable with some of the requests made by Rafiekian and others involved with the project. McCauley, who was paid $5,000 to attend the New York meeting, said that on a train ride there, Rafiekian asked about getting hold of classified FBI information on Gulen.

“He asked me if I had access to records against Gulen….FBI classified records,” McCauley said. “I said, ‘No, I don’t. I’m retired….I no longer have that access.”

McCauley said he gathered evidence linking Gulen to financial fraud and immigration issues, but faced requests to look into terrorism links. The ex-FBI official said made clear from the outset that only the FBI itself should be conducting terrorism investigations. He said he also declined requests to conduct visual and audio surveillance of Gulen supporters in the U.S.

McCauley said at one point Rafiekian asked him to meet with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and tell him Gulen is a terrorist.

“I would not commit to that,” the former FBI agent said. “I refused…I wasn’t going to compromise myself by saying something like that.”

McCauley also said Alptekin, the former head of the Turkish-U.S. business council, made clear he wanted new, derogatory information on Gulen. “I’m looking for dirt,” the FBI agent quoted Alptekin as saying.

Another witness, Grant Miller of lobbying and PR firm Sphere Consulting, said he attended a meeting where Alptekin made a similar pitch for negative, even salacious, information about Gulen. Alptekin “made a reference to the TV show, ‘Scandal.’ He had sort of a more Hollywood version of what FIG’s work was,” Miller said.

Prosecutors also emphasized that Rafiekian stressed the need for secrecy surrounding the project, instructing participants to communicate via the encrypted messaging app Signal and a similar service for email, Virtru.

“He said he wanted to keep Flynn Intel Group and our work non-disclosed,” Boston said.

To underscore the desire for secrecy, prosecutors called freelance journalist David Enders, who was hired to produce a documentary about Gulen that was never completed. Enders said that a few weeks before the election, he reported to a Dupont Circle-area hotel to videotape interviews with Turkish citizens who offered comments critical of Gulen. Aspects of the arrangement were unusual. Enders said a former CNN anchor, Rudi Bakhtiar, did the interviews, but didn’t know who she was interviewing before she arrived. The questions for the interviewees were prepared by Rafiekian, said Enders.

Enders said Rafiekian stressed not to draw attention as he moved his equipment into the hotel. “I was asked to do it in multiple trips so as to be discreet,” said the journalist, who’s now based in Beirut and testified under subpoena. “He did indicate he didn’t want Flynn Intel Group connected to what we were doing.”

Defense attorney Mark MacDougall suggested there was a simple explanation for the secrecy: the election and the polarizing figure Flynn had become, particularly after his Republican National Convention speech for Trump.

One key point of contention in the case involves an op-ed published under Flynn’s name on the website of The Hill newspaper on Election Day 2016. Prosecutors claim it was part of the Flynn Intel Group’s work for Alptekin and, in turn, Turkey. Rafiekian’s lawyers insist it was not part of that project.

Miller testified about receiving an urgent, election-eve message from Rafiekian about placing the op-ed immediately — no later than the following day. The Flynn partner’s initial plan was to give it to Fox News, but that fell through. Rafiekian then proposed the New York Post or the Drudge Report. Early the next morning, Miller began trying to find a place for the opinion piece. “The Hill was the only option where we felt that we could get it posted today,” he said.

Miller did say that Rafiekian claimed the op-ed was not part of the broader project Sphere was engaged for, but prosecutors emphasized that the themes and narrative seem to be drawn directly from the Gulen-focused assignment FIG was pursuing.

On cross-examination, Miller acknowledged that trying to keep a client’s identity secret isn’t unusual in the lobbying and PR world.

“There nothing illegal about that,” defense attorney Stacy Mitchell said.

“No,” Miller replied.

Mitchell also suggested Flynn was trying to help the Trump campaign, rather than Turkish interests, when he published the op-ed. “General Flynn had been using the method of op-eds throughout the campaign,” the defense lawyer said, introducing at least seven the general issued during 2016.

Jurors are getting brief glimpses of some political aspects of the case without much explanation. On Wednesday, jurors saw notes indicating that Alptekin wanted the Flynn group to explore Gulen’s connections to the Clinton Foundation. Neither side delved into the alleged links, which Flynn also raised in his Election Day op-ed.

While Flynn’s role has been a prominent topic at Rafiekian’s trial, he is not charged in the case. As part of a plea deal cut in 2017 with special counsel Robert Mueller’s office, the government agreed not to prosecute Flynn for anything related to the Turkey-focused lobbying.

In the deal, Flynn pleaded guilty to a single count of making false statements to the FBI during his brief tenure as Trump’s first national security adviser. But he also conceded to making false statements and omissions in the belated foreign-agent filing.

In the filing, Flynn’s firm reported that it was hired by Inovo BV, a Dutch firm controlled by Alptekin, the Turkish businessman. But prosecutors say the influence campaign was directed by senior Turkish officials.

Flynn’s lawyers now say he didn’t closely review the foreign-agent filing and didn’t intentionally lie about the effort. Prosecutors viewed that as a shift from his previous position and dropped him as a witness for Rafiekian’s trial.

Prosecutors are expected to wrap up their case against Rafiekian on Thursday, giving the defense the opportunity to start calling witnesses. It’s possible the defense could call Flynn, but at the moment that looks unlikely.

Alptekin, who was also charged in the indictment last December, has publicly denied the project was connected to the Turkish government. He has not been taken into custody and is believed to be living in Turkey.

While the witnesses said Alptekin was repeatedly critical and dismissive of what the Flynn Intel Group did, he told the Wall Street Journal in 2017 that he was impressed with the work. “They did a great job,” Alptekin said.