Part 4—Exploring a scary term: Today, let's start with a basic premise:
Crazy people get to be overpaid lobbyists too.
Crazy people get overpaid by firms right here in the United States. That doesn't mean that they're "on the United States government payroll," even if the work they're doing supports the policies of a sitting president.
Crazy people can also be overpaid by firms based in foreign lands. That doesn't mean that they're on some foreign government's payroll although, at exciting times like these, it can be fun to say so.
The "crazy" person of whom we speak is Michael Flynn. Last year, he was overpaid for three months by Inovo BV, a Dutch-based firm operated by Ekim Alptekin, whoever he may actually be.
In this morning's editions, the Washington Post again asserts that Alptekin is "a Turkish American businessman close to top Turkish officials." For whatever it may be worth, that would mean that Alkptekin is an American citizen, though we have no idea if the Post knows what it's talking about.
At times like these, when a chase is on, our newspapers sometimes don't bother.
In President Lincoln's time, we were "engaged in a great civil war." Today, in the reign of President Trump, we are engaged in a newspaper war, and in a very large chase.
Increasingly, our daily newspapers are being scripted by unnamed figures who are, in fact, breaking the law through their carefully parceled, often quite murky disclosures.
This may or may not be a good thing. But at times like these, your newspapers will often serve you novelized tales rather than hard information. In all honesty, these tales are designed to further the chase, not to inform the public.
Michael Flynn, who seems to be crazy, is the object of one such chase. Perhaps for that reason, we're now being exposed to various "Flynn facts"—inaccurate or misleading claims which further the corps' preferred novels.
One such claims was voiced Wednesday night as Brian took a drink. Millions of people heard the New York Times' Glenn Thrush say that Flynn "was on the Turkish payroll" during his lobbying days.
As far as we know, no one has ever produced any evidence in support of that imprecise claim. The claim does support the current novel, in which the apparently crazy Flynn is the object of a chase.
At times like these, exciting claims of that type sell newspapers and attract eyeballs. They don't produce a well-informed public. We can't have it all, it would seem.
Was Michael Flynn "on the Turkish payroll" during his overpaid days? We know of exactly zero evidence in support of that exciting claim.
Today, though, we stand to examine another claim—a thrilling claim which is plainly "technically accurate." We stand to examine the claim that Flynn worked as a "foreign agent" during his overpaid days—a thrilling claim which is technically accurate and also the source of much mischief.
The apparently crazy Michael Flynn worked as a foreign agent! This thrilling claim, which is technically accurate, has spawned other thrilling claims in the past few months.
On Wednesday night, it spawned the apparently inaccurate claim that he was "on the payroll of Turkey." Just last week, it spawned the claim, in a New York Times news report, that he "secretly work[ed] as a paid lobbyist for Turkey during the campaign."
Flynn was a "secret agent man!" To enjoy Johnny Rivers' 1966 hit of that name, you can just click here.
Today, let's explore that exciting "Flynn fact." Did the apparently crazy Flynn work as a foreign agent?
Technically, yes, he did. We know that because, on Tuesday, March 7, Flynn belatedly registered as a "foreign agent" under terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.
Needless to say, this produced a ton of excitement. As of this past week, that excitement had us hearing that Flynn was "on the payroll of Turkey" and had "secretly work[ed] as a paid lobbyist for Turkey," which sounds like much the same thing.
The apparently crazy Flynn worked as a foreign agent! The claim can be said to be technically accurate. For today, let's try to get a bit more clear on what this "Flynn fact" means.
For unknown reasons, the Washington Post and the New York Times didn't report Flynn's registration until Saturday morning, March 11. At the Post, Ashley Parker's front-page report started like this:
PARKER (3/11/17): Attorneys for Michael Flynn, President Trump's former national security adviser, informed the incoming White House legal counsel during the transition that Flynn might need to register with the government as a foreign agent—a phone call that raised no alarms within Trump's team, despite the unusual circumstance of having a top national security post filled by someone whose work may have benefited a foreign government.As is often the case with Parker's work, we're already in the conceptual weeds. Consider:
The firm Flynn headed, Flynn Intel Group, was hired last year during the presidential race when Flynn was an adviser to the Trump campaign by the Netherlands-based firm Inovo BV, which is owned by Turkish businessman Ekim Alptekin. Alptekin has close ties to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Although the contract ended after the election, new details about the work Flynn did for Inovo resurrect the controversy over his short tenure as Trump's top national security aide.
The national security adviser is supposed to be an honest broker within the executive branch, pulling together military and diplomatic options for the president so he can decide what policy to pursue. But Flynn's work potentially benefiting Turkey meant he was representing the interests of a country other than the United States at the same time he was advising Trump on foreign policy during the election.
Parker notes that Flynn was hired by a "Netherlands-based firm," not by the Turkish government. (At the time, the firm's owner was said to be Turkish, not Turkish American, as he's described in this morning's Post.)
Parker says that Flynn's work "may have benefited a foreign government," not that it was done on behalf of a foreign government. She says Flynn's work "potentially benefit[ed] Turkey," not that it did benefit Turkey and not that it was done at the direction of Turkey.
But uh-oh! In the same breath, Parker says that Flynn "was representing the interests of a country other than the United States" through his overpaid lobbyist work. That makes it sound like the apparently crazy Trump adviser was working for the Turkish government, or something very much like that.
Already, we were in the weeds; Parker tends to be like this. As time goes on in a matter like this, you'd almost think that major journalists would try to bring more clarity to the discussion.
Pollyanna, please! That isn't the way our "journalism" works when a chase is on.
Parker's basic formulations here were rather muddy. Before long, she added this:
PARKER: On Tuesday, Flynn filed paperwork with the Justice Department identifying himself as a foreign agent who was paid last year to do work that could benefit the Turkish government.Flynn had been paid to do work "that could benefit the Turkish government?" Do you understand what that means? Frankly, we do not.
Parker tends to be like this. Soon, though, she authored some surprising remarks—remarks which have gone down the memory hole as the chase has continued.
Hay-yo! Parker discussed the law under terms of which Flynn had registered as a "foreign agent." Breaking every rule in the book, she introduced a bit of nuance, even the hint of information:
PARKER: Dan Pickard, a partner at Wiley Rein and an expert in the Foreign Agents Registration Act, under which Flynn registered, said it is unusual but not unheard of for a senior campaign official to also be registered as an agent of a foreign government.Is Parker allowed to do that? She quoted an expert who said it's "not unheard of for a senior campaign official to also be registered as an agent of a foreign government."
"I've been aware of people who are registered under FARA being involved at relatively senior levels of a campaign, but in my experience that's more the exception than the rule,'' said Pickard, adding that the legal burden of complying with FARA "is relatively modest.''
FARA was passed in the run-up to World War II as a means of making pro-Germany activists acknowledge whether they were receiving financial support from that country.
For some in Washington, the political appearance of being a paid agent of a foreign government can be more problematic than the actual legal issues, according to others well versed in the law.
It's "more the exception than the rule," the expert unremarkably said. But he's been aware of this in the past!
The expert's comments made this matter sound a bit less nefarious. Meanwhile, though, did you notice what happened there?
In that passage, it suddenly sounds like Flynn has "registered as an agent of a foreign government." But when did Parker ever show that Flynn had done that?
This jumbled work is very typical of our floundering "press corps." For today, let's try to get clear on what a "foreign agent" actually is under terms of the Foreign Agents Registration Act, hereafter known as FARA.
We aren't experts about that act, but we do have access to Google. For that reason, we were able to visit FARA's web site, where we were able to peruse the act's basic provisions.
The basic fact you should know is this. If a person registers as a foreign agent under terms of the FARA, he is not necessarily declaring that he worked for a foreign government. The FARA site starts like this:
FARA SITE: The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) was enacted in 1938. FARA is a disclosure statute that requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities. Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their function as foreign agents.You see a reference to "foreign principals," not to foreign governments. But doesn't that mean "foreign governments?"
We're sorry, but no, it doesn't. Here's an official Q-and-A from the FARA site:
ARE FOREIGN GOVERNMENTS THE ONLY FOREIGN PRINCIPALS?In registering as a "foreign agent," the apparently crazy Flynn wasn't saying that he'd worked for a foreign government. Unless you're exempt under certain provisions, you have to register if you worked for a wide array of foreign entities or persons.
No. The term also includes foreign political parties, a person or organization outside the United States, except U.S. citizens, and any entity organized under the laws of a foreign country or having its principal place of business in a foreign country.
Back in the fall of 2016, Flynn had registered as a lobbyist under terms of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. It seems that he and his lawyers were later convinced that they had to register under the stricter terms of the FARA. Belatedly, they did so on March 7.
At that time, Flynn's lawyer made several murky statements about the technical reasons requiring this registration. One such statement has been quoted at various times, but no one has actually tried to explain the legalities of this matter. Things like that simply aren't done when a chase is on. As Journalists Ken and Barbie once said, "Explanation is hard."
We're making a small tiny point here. In registering as a "foreign agent" under terms of the FARA, Flynn wasn't saying that he had worked "on the payroll of Turkey."
On the other hand, he had associated himself with a wonderfully scary term. As Parker had murkily seemed to say, this can create "the political appearance of being a paid agent of a foreign government." And indeed: at times like this, when a chase is on, the actors who are cast as our "press corps" will have a grand old time with that term. Everyone will gain from this, except the American public.
Several times, we've mentioned the fact that Flynn is apparently crazy, with lots of semi-crazy ideas. We've done so for a reason.
At times like these, the haplessness of our liberal world tends to get exposed. In a wide array of contexts, we don't explore the crazy ideas of our political opponents.
Instead, we look for ways to say that our opponents have committed crimes. Either that, or we run to the courts, begging them to give us the wins we can't achieve on the ground.
In the case of Flynn, the press corps got busy embellishing the facts involved in his registration. "Foreign agent" sounds especially scary, so the phrase gets repeated a lot. The clowns you see on cable TV were soon repeating inaccurate claims, including the wonderful claim that Flynn was "on the Turkish payroll."
At times like this, few attempts are made to develop real facts. Instead, we're handed pleasing partisan novels.
We liberals have little skill at winning political debates. Rather than confront this problem, we tend to pray that The Others will get into legal trouble.
We're thrilled when a GOP candidate body-slams a reporter; it might let us win a campaign! We exult when the criminal figures behind the screen instruct our hapless newspapers to print the claim that Jared Kushner is now a "person of interest." However murky this claim may be, it lets us suggest that he is involved in crimes.
We love love love love love that stuff! We love it because we're lazy and dumb and are thereby born to lose.
To what extent are we inclined to play it this way? Consider:
Yesterday, two "stories" emerged about Kushner.
In an investigation for the New York Times Magazine and ProPublica, Alec MacGillis presented horrific facts about Kushner's life as a giant slumlord. Also, shadowy figures behind a screen directed our newspapers to print a fuzzy claim about an investigation in which Kushner is now said to be a "person of interest."
In the latter case, those shadowy figures were coming close to conducting a smear of Kushner. In the former case, dogged reporting showed that Kushner had engaged in widespread reprehensible conduct.
Which of these topics was being bruited all over "cable news" last night? Dearest darlings, please!
With compliments to the Times editorial board, did you have to ask?