WASHINGTON — The lead Democrat and Republican on the House Oversight Committee meted out a rare bipartisan rebuke of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn on Tuesday after seeing private information that confirmed the former administration official failed to disclose foreign income from Russia and Turkey.
The public criticism of Flynn by the senior Republican on the House’s chief investigative panel is unusual and presents a dilemma for the White House, which was accused of failing to provide everything the committee asked for (Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said that the committee received all of the documents it requested).
Chairman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and the panel’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, used sharp words to chastise Flynn, who was ousted in February after misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with the former Russian ambassador.
The lawmakers said they believe Flynn neither received permission for nor fully disclosed income he earned for a speaking engagement in Russia and lobbying activities on behalf of Turkey when he applied to renew his security clearance. They reached the 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.”
The bipartisan criticism of Flynn is a striking departure. Oversight has at times been overshadowed by partisan bickering, with Democrats often complaining of being shut out of major decisions on high-profile investigations such as Benghazi.
It happens as the House and Senate intelligence committee move ahead with their probe into Russia’s alleged interference in the 2016 election to help Trump. The FBI is also investigating Russia’s suspected interference in the campaign, and both the congressional panel and the Justice Department are examining alleged ties between President Donald Trump’s allies and Russian officials.
After a rocky start, the House Intelligence Committee is gaining steam with a new head of the Russia investigation: Texas Republican Michael Conaway, who stepped in after the former chairman, Republican Devin of California, recused himself. The House probe was all but stalled after Nunes appeared to coordinate with the White House regarding names of officials he argued could have been improperly revealed in surveillance reports.
The Senate is also taking action. Former acting Attorney General Sally Yates and former director of national intelligence James Clapper are scheduled to testify before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on May 8. House intelligence has also invited Yates and Clapper to testify in a public hearing that has not yet been scheduled.
Chaffetz and Cummings stressed Tuesday that as a former military officer, Flynn would have needed special permission for his December 2015 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 the 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 Schumer, D-New York, 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,” he said.
Flynn’s omission could cost him. Violations of this nature can be punishable by up to five years of jail time. The FBI could open an investigation into the matter, and if they have not already, Congress could ask them to do so — though that seems less likely in a GOP-led Justice Department.
It would also be very hard to prosecute alleged lying on a background-check form, but such an act could cause problems with future security clearances. But the law requires investigators to show that he “knowingly and willfully” made false statements. Prosecutors would not be able to make a case if Flynn’s forms were inaccurate because of carelessness or an honest mistake.
Chaffetz stressed that the government should “recover the money” paid to Flynn by foreign entities — a figure that would at least be in the tens of thousands of dollars. But the future of any action may not depend on him. Chaffetz announced last week that he would resign from Congress in 2018 and perhaps leave much sooner — setting off a scramble to replace him.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer would not say in his Tuesday briefing 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. “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 the documents Congress requested.
“Every document they asked for, it’s my understanding they’ve gotten,” he said.
He added that records requests for 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.”
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 trip to Moscow to speak at the RT gala, Cummings said.
Flynn counsel Rob Kelner of Covington & Burling said his client has spoken extensively with the Defense Intelligence Agency about his RT engagement.
“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,” Kelner said in a statement.
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 investigation.
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.
The committee is not likely to pull Flynn before the panel for testimony — despite Cummings’ 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.
Washington Post writers David Nakamura and Matt Zapotosky contributed to this report.