The Special Counsel’s Office and federal prosecutors in Manhattan are scrutinizing a meeting involving former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, one-time National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and dozens of foreign officials, according to three sources familiar with the investigations.
The breakfast event, which was first reported by The Daily Sabah, a pro-government Turkish paper, took place at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. at 8.30 a.m. on Jan. 18, 2017—two days before President Donald Trump’s inauguration. About 60 people were invited, including diplomats from governments around the world, according to those same sources.
The breakfast has come under scrutiny by federal prosecutors in Manhattan as part of their probe into whether the Trump inaugural committee misspent funds and if donors tried to buy influence in the White House. The existence of that probe was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. The Special Counsel’s Office is also looking at the breakfast as part of its investigation into whether foreigners contributed money to the Trump inaugural fund and PAC by possibly using American intermediaries, as first reported by The New York Times. Robert Mueller’s team has asked Flynn about the event, according to two sources familiar with the Special Counsel’s Office questioning.
Nunes, who has not been accused of any wrongdoing, has been perhaps Trump’s most important congressional ally over the last two years. After serving on Trump’s transition team, Nunes became a vigorous defender of the president against federal and congressional inquiries. The California Republican pushed a misleading memo alleging misconduct in the FBI investigation of Trump’s associates that the bureau said contained “material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy.”
Now Nunes—a key figure behind the right-wing counter narrative that Trump is at the mercy of a “Deep State” conspiracy—finds at least one meeting that he himself attended under the special counsel’s scrutiny.
The breakfast gathering took place the night after the Global Chairman’s Dinner—one of the inauguration’s most exclusive events, set up so the incoming president can meet the foreign diplomatic corps. Some of those who attended the dinner also attended the Trump Hotel breakfast, two individuals with direct knowledge of the events told The Daily Beast. Country officials invited to the breakfast included Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Israel, Lithuania, Estonia, Denmark, Japan, Angola and others. Former Kazakh Ambassador Kairat Umarov attended the breakfast, as did two senior Qatari officials.
Pluvious Group, a consultancy that raised money for the Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign, helped with the event’s organization, according to two sources with knowledge of the breakfast. The group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“If you’re a prosecutor, all of the right players are there,” said former federal prosecutor Paul Pelletier, referring to the breakfast. “In a lot of ways breakfasts like this are totally normal. It happens all the time in Washington. So, they wouldn’t be investigating it if they weren’t following the money. The big question would be who is paying for it? It’s got to be part of the broader scheme of who is trying to use money to influence the White House.”
Nunes’ office did not respond to repeated requests for comment. A lawyer for Flynn declined to comment, as did the Southern District of New York and the Special Counsel’s Office.
Flynn, who was ousted from his post in February 2017, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. He was a cooperating witness in the Mueller investigation, but it is still unclear how much jail time, if any, he will receive. As part of their questioning of Flynn, Mueller’s team asked the retired general about his interaction with foreign officials, particularly in the days leading up to the inauguration and including at the breakfast, two people with knowledge of the special counsel’s questioning told The Daily Beast.
“The fact that the prosecutors are looking at this is part of the whole question of the Trump way of doing business—how it may have given all kinds of foreign powers inroads into the White House,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “These cases are important because they involve possible elements of corruption and could tell us more about the special physics of Trumpworld influence which looks more like what you get in a banana republic.”
And within Trumpworld, there are few players better known for their willingness to “throw themselves on grenade, after grenade, after grenade” in the defense of Trump than Nunes, according to a former senior White House official.
The bromance goes both ways. Late last year, President Trump even went as far as to bizarrely state that Nunes deserves the Medal of Honor for “bravery” in his blocking-and-tackling against the Trump-Russia investigations, only to subsequently correct himself to say Nunes should get the Medal of Freedom instead. (The Medal of Honor is a military decoration.)
"You would be shocked at the number of Americans who have drank the Russia Kool-Aid, and they actually believe that Donald Trump is under control of Vladimir Putin," Nunes said in an interview with Fox News in September. "You're really dealing with many Americans who are living in an alternative universe."
Soon after the inauguration breakfast, Nunes began a House Intelligence Committee investigation, ostensibly aimed at the connections between Trump and Russia, that devolved into a mechanism to defend Trump against those investigating the president. Revelations about Nunes’ cooperation with the White House prompted him to leave the investigation in the hands of his GOP colleagues, but Nunes retained subpoena power. The investigation ended last year after Republicans on the committee said they “found no evidence of collusion between President Donald Trump’s associates and the Kremlin.”
This summer, The Rachel Maddow Show aired audio from a closed-door fundraiser in which Nunes said Republicans had to keep their majority in the House to protect Trump from Mueller.
“If [then Attorney General Jeff] Sessions won’t unrecuse and Mueller won’t clear the president, we’re the only ones, which is really the danger,” Nunes said. ““I mean, we have to keep all these seats. We have to keep the majority. If we do not keep the majority, all of this goes away.”
Nunes’ counterpart on the intelligence committee, Adam Schiff, a Democrat from California, now holds the chairman seat.
It’s not surprising that Nunes and Flynn found themselves together in the days before the inauguration. Nunes’ links to Flynn are substantial. During the 24-day period when Flynn served as Trump’s national security adviser, Flynn brought one of Nunes’ senior aides, the former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Derek Harvey, onto the staff of the National Security Council. Another former aide to Nunes’ committee, Michael Ellis, went to the White House counsel’s office. Ellis and a third Flynn aide, the NSC intelligence director Ezra Cohen-Watnick, reportedly fed Nunes information that Nunes presented as deriving from intelligence whistleblowers worried about inappropriate “unmasking” of Americans’ names from surveillance intercepts, such as Flynn’s. (Cohen-Watnick denies involvement. A subsequent Times report stated that Cohen-Watnick, “at the instruction of two senior White House officials, helped print intelligence reports that later served as Mr. Nunes’s proof,” but that “did not provide the intelligence reports to Mr. Nunes.”)
In February of 2017, as the possibility arose of Trump firing Flynn for misleading Vice President Mike Pence, Nunes told a reporter that he expected Flynn to keep his job. “It just seems like there's a lot of nothing there,” Nunes told Bloomberg News.
Trump fired Flynn the next day. And Nunes became a rare voice defending the retired Army lieutenant general. “Washington, D.C. can be a rough town for honorable people, and Flynn—who has always been a soldier, not a politician—deserves America's gratitude and respect for dedicating so much of his life to strengthening our national security,” Nunes said on Feb. 14, 2017. Flynn would plead guilty to lying to the FBI that December.
Flynn’s ascension to the highest ranks of the Trump administration—quickly followed by his dramatic fall—was, however, met with some prescient reservations, including from President-elect Trump himself.
During the presidential transition, Trump quizzed close advisers on if they thought installing Flynn would be “too risky,” given that Trump had heard that the retired Army lieutenant general had a reputation for being a “cowboy” and a “wild man,” according to two people with direct knowledge of these conversations.
“Will he be a problem, do you think?” one of these sources recalled Trump asking during the transition.