So many of them knew.
As court filings and emails emerge from the Mueller probe and dogged reporting, Trump officials who denied that Michael Flynn would stoop to renegotiating the outgoing administration’s sanctions on Russia turn out to have been privately informed of Flynn’s pre-inauguration diplomacy in real time.
The Trump camp’s public posture about Flynn’s proposal to Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak not to retaliate for Obama’s new sanctions has been a rapidly moving target. The conversation didn’t take place at all, according to unnamed Trump administration sources in January. Or they did, but the two didn’t talk about sanctions. Or they were about sanctions, but only in the context of “outreach to foreign dignitaries,” as White House lawyer Ty Cobb put it.
“It would have been political malpractice not to discuss sanctions,” Cobb told the New York Times in a report published Saturday. There is “nothing to hide,” according to the President on Monday, which doesn’t go very far to explain why so many spent so long trying to hide it.
Jan. 12: A column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius revealed for the first time that Flynn and Kislyak spoke to each other on Dec. 29, the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on the Kremlin for interfering in the 2016 election. Though the column did not report what Flynn and Kislyak discussed, Ignatius asked whether Flynn’s comments could have “undercut the U.S. sanctions” and if the spirit of the Logan Act was “violated.”
Jan. 13: The Trump transition team rushed to respond and in doing so seemed to elide the existence of the Dec. 29 call, focusing instead on other, allegedly more anodyne calls between Flynn and Kislyak.
An update to the Ignatius column provided comment from one unnamed transition official who said that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken by phone twice, including a call on Dec. 28, but that the calls were before sanctions were announced and didn’t touch on that topic. A second Trump official told Ignatius that there was a Dec. 28 call in which Kislyak invited a Trump administration official to attend a January conference in Kazakhstan.
Incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer provided an on-the-record response to the Ignatius column in a call with pool reporters. Spicer said that the conversations focused on exchanging holiday greetings.
“On Christmas Day, General Flynn reached out to the ambassador, sent him a text, and it said, you know, I want to wish you Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, I look forward to touching base with you and working with you. And I wish you all the best,” Spicer said in the press call. “The ambassador texted him back, wishing him a Merry Christmas as well, and then subsequently, on the 28th of December, texted him and said, I’d like to give you a call, may I? He then took that call on the 28th, and the call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in. And they exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and to schedule that call. That was it. Plain and simple.”
Jan. 15: Vice President-elect Mike Pence adamantly denied that Flynn discussed sanctions in an extended interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“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,” Pence said, echoing Spicer.
“It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation,” Pence continued. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
Pence pioneered the one Trump administration talking point it has stuck to: talking to “diplomatic leaders, security leaders in some 30 countries” was “exactly what the incoming national security adviser should do.”
“The subject matter of sanctions or the actions taken by the Obama did not come up in the conversation,” incoming White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said in his own interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” claiming he’d discussed the issue with Flynn.
“In fact, it was the sports team that was in an unfortunate plane accident,” Priebus continued. “They talked about setting up a phone call after inauguration. And they also talked about a conference in Syria, or a conference in regard to ISIS in Syria. So those were the only subjects that came up.”
An unnamed transition official affirmed Pence’s remark about Flynn and Kislyak not discussing sanctions to CNN in a story published the same day.
Jan. 24: The FBI interviewed Flynn at the White House about his contacts with Kislyak, and Flynn was less than truthful. Flynn would later plead guilty to lying to the FBI that day about the content of his conversations with Kislyak, including the Dec. 29 call discussing sanctions.
Jan. 26: Acting Attorney General Sally Yates met with White House Counsel Don McGahn to tell him that White House officials were giving comment “related to conduct that General Flynn had been involved in that we knew not to be the truth,” as she later testified. Yates told a Senate Judiciary subcommittee that she expressed grave concern about Flynn’s “underlying conduct” and the fact that the national security adviser “was compromised by the Russians.” The White House said that McGahn recounted his exchange with Yates to Trump immediately.
Feb. 8: In an interview with the Washington Post, Flynn twice responded to questions that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak with a flat “no.”
Feb. 9: The Post published a story including those Feb. 8 denials, and confirming that Flynn discussed sanctions with Kislyak during the transition. Though the Post story did not specifically cite the Dec. 29 phone call, it reported that Flynn’s communications with Kislyak were under scrutiny by the FBI. The article included a line from Flynn’s spokesman who said that the retired general now “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be sure that the topic never came up.”
Feb. 13: Hours before his dismissal, Flynn gave an extraordinary interview to the Daily Caller, contradicting his denials to the Post, in which he admitted to discussing Obama’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats to retaliate for Russia’s election meddling, but denied crossing any lines.
“If I did, believe me, the FBI would be down my throat, my clearances would be pulled. There were no lines crossed,” Flynn insisted.
Though he claimed the discussion “wasn’t about sanctions,” he admitted it “was about the 35 guys who were thrown out”—which was, in fact, part of the sanctions. “So that’s what it turned out to be. It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We’ll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.”
The Dec. 29 call “was not to relieve sanctions,” he reiterated. “It was basically to say, ‘Look, we’re coming into office in a couple of weeks. Give us some time to take a look at everything.’”
Feb. 14: The day after Flynn’s firing, Spicer spent the daily press briefing insisting there was nothing suspect about the ousted official’s foreign contacts.
“The job of the incoming NSA is to sit down with the counterparts and start that dialogue, and that’s exactly what he did,” Spicer said, noting that the transition “would constantly read out” reports of “who he was speaking to, how he was getting ready.”
“There’s nothing that the general did that was a violation of any sort,” he responded to a subsequent question. “He was well within his duties to discuss issues of common concern between the two countries.”
The firing was a direct response to “misleading the Vice President and others, and not having a firm grasp on his recollection of that,” Spicer said.
The same day, The New Yorker reported that an anonymous source had described Reince Priebus supposedly angrily dressing down Flynn until Flynn cracked and admitted to possibly discussing sanctions.*
Feb. 16: President Trump gave a wide-ranging press conference in the White House’s East Room defending Flynn as a “fine person” and saying he was simply unhappy with the way “a certain amount of information [was] given to Vice President Pence.”
“Did you direct Mike Flynn to discuss the sanctions with the Russian ambassador?” a reporter asked.
“No, I didn’t,” Trump said. “No I didn’t.”
“Did you fire him because—” a reporter followed up.
“No, I fired him because of what he said to Mike Pence, very simple,” Trump interjected. “Mike [Flynn] was doing his job. He was calling countries and his counterparts. So it certainly would have been okay with me if he did it. I would have directed him to do it if I thought he wasn’t doing it. I didn’t direct him but I would have directed him because that’s his job.”
Feb. 19: Priebus gave a pair of interviews claiming that the White House only learned of the sanctions discussions after days of “sort of deposing Michael Flynn.”
“He maintained the fact that he never talked to the Russian ambassador about sanctions,” Priebus told NBC’s “Meet the Press” of their initial conversations. “But still, something wasn’t adding up. And eventually, we determined that he did, in fact, talk about the sanctions, even though we didn’t believe that it was illegal.”
Priebus was also subjected to an extended grilling from CBS “Face The Nation” host John Dickerson, who asked six times if it was actually appropriate to discuss sanctions or if Trump thought it was.
“There is nothing wrong with having a conversation about sanctions,” Priebus finally said. “And there was nothing wrong about having a conversation about the fact that the Obama administration put further sanctions in place and expelled some folks out of the United States. There is nothing wrong with that topic coming up in a conversation.”
Flynn’s guilty plea Friday for lying to the FBI about the extent of his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak revealed a much more extensive sequence of conversations. It was Jared Kushner, identified in the Mueller probe’s statement of offense as “a very senior official” of the Trump transition team, who first asked Flynn to contact Kislyak, at the time in response to a U.N. resolution condemning the expansion of Israeli settlements, which Kushner wanted delayed or defeated.
When Obama sanctioned Russia on Dec. 28 for its interference in the 2016 elections, Mueller’s team wrote, Kislyak had called Flynn. On the 29th Flynn reached out to “a senior official of the presidential transition team,” identified by the AP as K. T. McFarland, who became Trump’s deputy national security adviser (now his nominee for ambassador to Singapore), who was at Mar-a-Lago with the president-elect and senior members of the transition team.
The two “discussed that members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation” and ultimately decided to ask Kislyak not to escalate sanctions; Kislyak complied, and Russian president Vladimir Putin announced the next day that he would not retaliate, according to the Mueller probe’s statement of the offense filed against Flynn.
The New York Times reported Saturday on an email about Flynn’s discussion with Kislyak from McFarland. Her email about Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak went to Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Tom Bossert and at least five other Trump advisers.
In her email, McFarland was explicit. “As part of the outreach, Ms. McFarland wrote, Mr. Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, hours after Mr. Obama’s sanctions were announced,” the Times reported.
McFarland also outlined what she believed was the anti-Trump strategy concealed in the sanctions by the Obama administration, designed to “box trump in diplomatically with russia.”
*Priebus, according to Saturday’s Times report, was CC’ed on the email from McFarland discussing Flynn’s sanctions-related talking points with Kislyak and would very likely have had the evidence he was supposedly seeking in his email.