If there is a question of who worked on behalf of the Turkish government to influence the 2016 Donald Trump campaign, then the court should look no further than former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, lawyers for Bijan Kian, the Iranian-American businessman and former Flynn partner, told jurors in the Eastern District of Virginia Monday.
Kian is charged with two felonies—illegally lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government and conspiring covertly to influence U.S. politics about Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish cleric who is now living in Pennsylvania. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.
But Kian’s team of attorneys said in their opening statements Monday that their client “did not conspire with anyone” to work on behalf of the Turkish government in the U.S. When questioning the Turkish government’s influence operations in the U.S., the jury should look at the newly announced cache of evidence the government has on Flynn, said attorney Bob Trout. Kian isn’t referenced in any of it, Trout said.
In the opening statements Monday the Kian legal team spent the majority of their time arguing that their client did not work on behalf of the Turkish government when he attempted to influence public opinion in the U.S. about Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen. Gulen currently lives in Pennsylvania and is wanted by the Turkish government for allegedly planning a military coup in the country in 2016. Kian instead worked on behalf of a Turkish-Dutch businessman named Ekim Alptekin, Trout said. (Alptekin is named as a defendant in the Kian case but will likely avoid appearance because he is living in Istanbul.)
Toward the end of his statements, Trout tried to create a degree of separation between Kian and Flynn who is currently awaiting sentencing in Washington for crimes carried out during his time working with the Trump team. He pointed to the government’s evidence, which was mentioned in a hearing last week, and said that prosecutors had all but conceded that Kian was not involved. The jurors have not seen the evidence yet and the details of what the government currently has in its position is unclear.
According to a government indictment filed last year, Flynn and Kian worked together throughout the fall of 2016, when Flynn was an advisor to then candidate Trump, on a project to try and extradite Gulen back to Turkey. Prosecutors said the two took hundreds of thousands of dollars from the Turkish government to execute the plan.
Flynn was also at the time accused of lying about his communications with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. He entered into a cooperation deal with Special Counsel Robert Mueller and admitted to lying about the communications and about his consulting firm’s business with the Turkish government. He said that the registration he filed for the Turkey-focused project in 2017 contained several inaccuracies, though his lawyers maintain that Flynn did not intentionally lie on the documents.
As part of his deal with the government, Flynn was supposed to testify against Kian and his sentencing in Washington was postponed so he could appear as a witness in Virginia.
That all changed last week when the government removed Flynn from the witness list and instead named him as a co-conspirator in the case. The government also said it had extensive information that the Turkish government attempted to influence the Trump campaign through Flynn. It was the first mention of an additional set of materials that show how Flynn was being extensively involved in the Turkish lobbying.
It’s that evidence that lies at the heart of who really committed the crime of illegally lobbying for Turkey, Kian’s lawyers said Monday. Kian “didn’t know” about the alleged separate communications between Alptekin and Flynn that are in the government’s possession, Trout said.
For its part, the government in its opening statement barely mentioned the former national security adviser, instead referring several times to Kian’s business team members as “associates.” The government focused on Kian’s email correspondences, including with Flynn, about the Gulen project and attempted to lay out for the jury how the money that flowed into Kian’s account for services rendered connected back to the Turkish government.
After nearly an hour and a half of opening statements, both of which were at times tangled and difficult to follow, the jury seemed to fade by 5:30 p.m. Several individuals closed their eyes and appeared to be sleeping.
They’re due back in court Tuesday morning for testimony, including evidence to be entered into the record and for witness examinations.