National Security Adviser Michael Flynn can’t seem to get his story straight on the nature of his communications with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak in the lead-up to Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration — raising concerns that Trump’s trusted adviser may have unlawfully interfered in U.S. foreign policy interactions with Russia and then tried to cover it up.
The Washington Post published a bombshell report late last week, citing nine current and former senior U.S. officials, that asserts that Flynn and Kislyak had indeed discussed sanctions that were introduced by President Obama in December as a punitive measure in response to Russia’s alleged interference in the U.S. election. One former official told the Post that the references to the subject were “explicit.”
“Kislyak was left with the impression that the sanctions would be revisited at a later time,” the former official said. The officials also contended that Flynn and Kislyak had been in contact prior to the Nov. 8 election and continued to talk throughout the transition.
After months of outright denial from Flynn and Trump’s incoming administration, Flynn changed his tune on Thursday. When reached for comment, Flynn told the Post through a spokesperson that “while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
Leading congressional Democrats immediately called for an investigation into Flynn’s relations with Moscow, and on Saturday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, in a statement, demanded that Flynn be suspended until an FBI investigation determines the extent of “his secret contacts with the Russians.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, also took a hard line on Flynn.
The Trump administration’s response
Trump said Friday that he planned to “look into” reports regarding Flynn’s communications with Russia’s ambassador. “I don’t know about that,” Trump said. “I haven’t seen it.”
Senior Trump officials have consistently maintained that Flynn did not discuss sanctions against Russia. Flynn is a retired United States Army Lieutenant general who served as the 18th director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, before being forced out in 2014 because of his “chaotic” approach to management.
On Sunday, Trump’s senior policy adviser Stephen Miller appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press“ and was asked by moderator Chuck Todd whether the president still had confidence in Flynn. “That’s the question that I think you should ask the president,” Miller said. “General Flynn has served his country admirably.”
Miller added that the White House did not give him anything more to say on the matter.
Pence isn’t pleased
Flynn reportedly told Vice President-elect Mike Pence that the conversation with Kislyak was limited to the one friendly phone call in December. Pence later appeared on CBS’ “Face the Nation“ on Jan. 15, before the inauguration, to defend Flynn, asserting that Trump’s future national security adviser and the Russian ambassador “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
But the vice president may now be having regrets about coming to Flynn’s defense. According to a report by the Washington Post, the relationship between the two men is “under particular strain,” as Pence realizes that he might have publicly parroted Flynn’s inaccurate account of what happened.
Democrats call for an investigation
Many leading Democrats are up in arms about the reported communication between Flynn and Kislyak. On Saturday, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., called for Flynn to be suspended from his position. “Once again, I am calling on the FBI to investigate the financial, political, and personal ties between President Donald Trump and Russia,” Pelosi said in a statement. “Republicans should be just as alarmed as Democrats as the mortifying coziness the Trump Administration has shown with Putin.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-California), a ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said that Flynn should be sacked if the allegations were true. “If he did so, and then he and other Administration officials misled the American people, his conduct would be all the more pernicious and he should no longer serve in this Administration or any other,” Schiff said.
On Sunday, Al Franken was unreserved in his criticism of Flynn. “Either he was lying about not having discussed that, or he forgot,” Franken told CNN’s Jake Tapper. “I don’t think you want a guy who’d forget that.”
Others, including Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-N.Y., Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Md., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., also weighed in with similarly tough takes.
Thus far, Republicans have been notably quiet on the bombshell revelations.
Flynn’s previous ties to Russia
This isn’t the first time Flynn’s relations with Moscow have raised concerns — Trump’s national security adviser has been criticized for his openness to fostering closer ties between Russia and the United States.
During an interview with the Washington Post last July, Flynn was asked about his trips to Russia. He explained that he visited Russia while serving as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Flynn acknowledged that he accepted a paid speaking opportunity in 2015 for Russia Today, a propaganda outlet for the Kremlin. Flynn told the interviewer that he saw no difference between RT and CNN or MSNBC. He also sat next to Vladimir Putin at a gala in Moscow.
If the reports prove true, Flynn’s private communications with Kislyak would have violated the Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from meddling in U.S. government foreign policy issues. Even more egregious, Flynn may have deliberately misled the public and his colleagues about the nature of his pre-inauguration talks with high-level Russian officials.
The revelations surrounding Flynn also come as U.S. intelligence officials said Friday that they had corroborated some parts of the explosive (yet not wholly substantiated) dossier regarding President Trump’s ties to Russia.