WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s national security adviser addressed U.S. sanctions against Russia in his conversations with the country’s ambassador while President Barack Obama was still in office, a new report said, contradicting previous claims that the issue was not discussed.
A Trump administration official told The Associated Press that Michael Flynn “can’t be certain” that sanctions did not come up in his discussions with the Russian ambassador. The official said Flynn has “no recollection” of discussing the sanctions, but left open the possibility that the issue did come up when he spoke with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition.
The Kremlin denied Friday that Flynn and Kislyak discussed the sanctions before Trump took office.
But the Washington Post, citing several current and former U.S. officials, reported late Thursday that Flynn made explicit references to election-related sanctions imposed by the Obama administration in his conversations with Kislyak.
Members of the Trump administration have maintained that Flynn had spoken to the ambassador during the transition period to wish him a Merry Christmas and offer condolences after a deadly Russian plane crash.
One of the calls took place on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in response to a U.S. intelligence assessment that the Russian government had interfered in the U.S. presidential election with the goal of helping Trump.
The Post report also raises questions about assertions made by Vice President Mike Pence staunchly denying that Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador had anything to do with sanctions.
“It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation” as new sanctions were announced, Pence said in an interview on CBS’s “Face the Nation” last month. He insisted the discussion did not address the Obama administration’s decision to impose sanctions on Russian intelligence services and expel Russian 35 diplomats it said were actually intelligence operatives.
Pence also maintained that the Trump presidential campaign had no contacts with the Russians ahead of the election.
A second administration official said Pence was relying on information from Flynn when he denied sanctions were raised during the calls with Kislyak.
Both officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity.
It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as Obama was imposing sanctions raise questions about whether Trump’s team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia’s response.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. for the expulsions, a decision Trump quickly praised.
After U.S. officials first revealed Flynn’s calls last month, Trump aides originally denied that a telephone conversation even took place on Dec. 29. Hours later, an official acknowledged one such call.
Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the Trump administration has been laying the groundwork for its promised closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over the assessment that Putin ordered a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election.
The sanctions targeted the GRU and FSB, leading Russian intelligence agencies that the U.S. said were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other groups.
Democratic Sens. Ed Markey and Chris Murphy called for an investigation of Flynn.
Other Democrats demanded his firing.
“He lied – repeatedly and egregiously – about his actions,” Reps. Ruben Gallego of Arizona and Ted Lieu of California said Friday.
Questions about Trump’s friendly posture toward Russia deepened after he dismissed the U.S. intelligence agencies’ assertions about Russia’s role in the hacking. In briefing Trump on their findings, intelligence officials also presented him with unsubstantiated claims that Russia had amassed compromising personal and financial allegations against him.
Last week, House Democrats called for an investigation of Flynn to determine whether he violated the Constitution by accepting payments from a Kremlin-controlled TV station in Russia. Flynn traveled in 2015 to Moscow, where he joined Putin and other Russian officials in a celebration of the RT network.
Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general, later explained he had been paid for taking part in the event, but brushed aside concerns that he was aiding a Russian propaganda effort.
The Emoluments Clause of the Constitution prohibits federal officeholders from accepting gifts from foreign governments. The Defense Department warns that the prohibition applies to both active-duty and retired military.