Despite Denials, Michael Flynn Discussed Sanctions on Calls with Russian Ambassador

Susan Hennessey
Thursday, February 9, 2017, 10:44 PM

This evening the Washington Post reported that, National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn discussed sanctions during his December phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Previously both Flynn and the White House had repeatedly denied the accusation.

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This evening the Washington Post reported that, National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn discussed sanctions during his December phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Previously both Flynn and the White House had repeatedly denied the accusation. The Post cites “nine current and former officials” in senior positions at federal agencies as confirming the account.

Shortly after the inauguration, Jordan Brunner and I recapped the known state of investigations into the staff and associates of President Donald Trump and ties to Russia. At the time, here is what we said about the investigations into this particular set of phone calls:

Reports Regarding National Security Advisor Michael Flynn

A number of parallel, though not necessarily related reports, regarding National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russian officials have introduced some degree of confusion. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius initially broke the Flynn story on January 12th, citing a senior government official as saying that Flynn had phoned Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak “several times” on December 29th, the same day that President Obama levied sanctions against 35 Russian intelligence operatives in retaliation for Russian cyber interference with the 2016 presidential election. The next day, Reuters confirmed Ignatius’ revelation, reporting that, according to three sources, Flynn had made five phone calls with Kislyak between the time that the Russian government was informed about the sanctions and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to forgo reprisals. There have been a number of conflicting reports both from the media and the Trump team regarding the number and nature of calls. At Just Security, Kate Brannen has chronicled those conflicting accounts.

AP has also pointed to inconsistencies in the Trump team’s response about the phone calls. While White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer initially claimed there was only one phone call on December 28th, a transition official confirmed that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak on December 29th, ostensibly about having a U.S. presence for the Syrian peace talks in Kazakhstan. According to NBC, the call on December 29th had not been cleared by the White House, and Spicer claimed this call was to set up a future phone call between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Importantly, there is nothing criminal or even necessarily improper about the incoming National Security Advisor having conversations with foreign officials. Nor is it necessarily significant that the U.S. government intercepted Flynn’s communications as the targeting of Russian officials within the United States is commonplace and U.S. officials might interact with targeted individuals. However, there is no reason to think ordinary contacts should spur any kind of investigation.

Last Sunday, however, the Wall Street Journal published a story that U.S. officials “had investigated” Flynn’s communications as part of a counterintelligence inquiry to determine “the nature of [his] contacts with Russian officials and whether such contacts may have violated laws.” The Journal reported that the December 29th calls are a “key issue” in the investigation, but that it also involves “earlier conversations between Mr. Flynn and Russian figures.” It wrote that it “isn’t clear when the counterintelligence inquiry [regarding Flynn] began, whether it produced incriminating evidence or if it is continuing.” [Separately, the Journal story confirmed earlier reports regarding the ongoing inquiry into Manafort, Stone, and Page.]

On Monday, CNN confirmed the Wall Street Journal story regarding the intercepted communications and also reported that “the content of the conversation raised enough potential concerns that investigators are still looking into the discussions, amid a broader concern about Russian intelligence-gathering activities in the United States.”

Then, late Monday night, the Washington Post offered a contradictory report asserting that Flynn had been cleared of any wrongdoing and was not part of the broader investigation into Trump associates’s ties to Russia. To add even more confusion, CBS then aligned with the Journal and CNN’s earlier reports, refuting the Post’s account and reporting that their U.S. government sources say the investigation is still active.

That is more or less where we are today. It appears there are ongoing investigations involving Trump associates and Russia, the precise facts of which are murky. Perhaps, the biggest lingering unknown is the future of these investigations now that President Trump has assumed office. When asked if Trump intended to halt the ongoing investigations, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said that the President “has not made any indication that he will stop any investigation of any sort.”

Tonight’s Washington Post story seems to contradict its own earlier reporting. The Post now reports that the investigation into General Flynn’s communications is indeed ongoing.

In late December, the Obama administration imposed a series of sanctions and punitive measures against Russia for interference in the U.S. election and harassment of US diplomats abroad. Russian officials had quickly vowed to retaliate against the U.S., but then abruptly changed course. According to the Post,

Putin’s muted response — which took White House officials by surprise — raised some officials’ suspicions that Moscow may have been promised a reprieve, and triggered a search by U.S. spy agencies for clues.

“Something happened in those 24 hours” between Obama’s announcement and Putin’s response, a former senior U.S. official said. Officials began poring over intelligence reports, intercepted communications and diplomatic cables, and saw evidence that Flynn and Kislyak had communicated by text and telephone around the time of the announcement.

Notably, Michael Flynn has denied he discussed sanctions during those calls as recently as yesterday. And he had been earlier supported in those denials by Vice President Pence, among others. In January, then Vice President-elect Pence had the following exchange with Face the Nation’s John Dickerson:

JOHN DICKERSON: Let me ask you about it was reported by David Ignatius that the incoming national security advisor Michael Flynn was in touch with the Russian ambassador on the day the United States government announced sanctions for Russian interference with the election. Did that contact help with that Russian kind of moderate response to it? That there was no counter-reaction from Russia. Did the Flynn conversation help pave the way for that sort of more temperate Russian response?

MIKE PENCE: I talked to General Flynn about that conversation and actually was initiated on Christmas Day he had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airplane crash that took place. It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.

JOHN DICKERSON: So did they ever have a conversation about sanctions ever on those days or any other day?

MIKE PENCE: They did not have a discussion contemporaneous with U.S. actions on--

JOHN DICKERSON: But what about after--

MIKE PENCE: --my conversation with General Flynn. Well, look. General Flynn has been in touch with diplomatic leaders, security leaders in some 30 countries. That’s exactly what the incoming national security advisor--


MIKE PENCE: --should do. But what I can confirm, having spoken to him about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.

JOHN DICKERSON: But that still leaves open the possibility that there might have been other conversations about the sanctions.

MIKE PENCE: I don’t believe there were more conversations.

There are still more questions than answers about this undeniably bizarre episode. For now, the immediate question is whether Flynn will continue to stand by his previous statements and whether the White House will continue to stand by Flynn.

Susan Hennessey was the Executive Editor of Lawfare and General Counsel of the Lawfare Institute. She was a Brookings Fellow in National Security Law. Prior to joining Brookings, Ms. Hennessey was an attorney in the Office of General Counsel of the National Security Agency. She is a graduate of Harvard Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles.

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