Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for national security adviser, held multiple phone conversations with Russia's ambassador to Washington on the day the United States announced retaliation for Moscow's interference in the U.S. presidential election, two people familiar with the issue said.
The conversations appear to raise further questions about contacts between Trump's advisers and Russian officials at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies contend that Moscow waged a multifaceted campaign of hacking and other actions to boost Trump's election chances over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
On Dec. 29, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian suspected spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking U.S. political groups in the 2016 election.
Whether Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak discussed those sanctions is unclear.
An 18th-century U.S. law, the Logan Act, bars unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments that are in disputes with the United States.
The phone calls were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
A Trump spokesman said on Friday that Flynn took a call from the Russian ambassador last month, and discussed setting up a call between the president-elect and Russian President Vladimir Putin after Trump's inauguration on Jan. 20.
"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 schedule that call. That was it, plain and simple," spokesman Sean Spicer told reporters.
Spicer said the call took place on Dec. 28. He said the call followed text message exchanges initiated by Flynn on Christmas Day, in which he wished the ambassador a merry Christmas and said he looked forward to "touching base with you and working with you."
The two people familiar with the issue, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said several calls between Flynn and Kislyak took place on Dec. 29, the day of Obama's announcement.
The transition team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether Flynn and the Russian ambassador spoke on Dec. 29.
Asked to comment, Alexey Mosin, a spokesman for the Russian Embassy in Washington, said, "the Embassy does not comment on multiple contacts, which are carried out on a daily basis with local interlocutors."
After the Nov. 8 election, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the state-run Interfax news agency that the Russian government was in touch with members of Trump's political team during the U.S. election campaign and knew most of his entourage.
In his news conference on Wednesday, Trump declined to answer whether anyone connected to him or the campaign had contact with Moscow during the presidential campaign and said he had no loans or business deals with or in Russia.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Friday said it remained unclear whether such a call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador would be objectionable .
"It depends on what they discussed," Earnest told reporters, adding that he could not weigh in without knowing its content.
He added that he was unaware that the White House was informed of Flynn's call in advance, and that while the Trump team was briefed on the Russian sanctions, he could not say when it occurred.
The only contact between the White House and the Russian ambassador during that time period was to express condolences over the death of a Russian diplomat in Turkey, Earnest said.
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Michael Flynn in frequent contact with Russia's ambassador to U.S.
A senior U.S. official says the Obama administration is aware of frequent contacts between President-elect Donald Trump’s top national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador to the United States, and Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer revealed what was talked about on some of the calls.
The administration official said the contacts happened on the day President Obama expelled dozens of Russian officials from the U.S. and imposed sanctions as punishment for election-related hacking, Dec. 29.
Who is Michael Flynn?
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius first reported in a column Friday that Trump adviser Michael Flynn “phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29.” An official told the Associated Press that the administration is also aware of contacts between Trump adviser Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at other times as well.
During a phone call Friday morning, Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer said that Flynn had contacted the Russia’s ambassador on Dec. 25 to wish him a Merry Christmas. Spicer also mentioned another contact on Dec. 28, which was the day before the sanctions were announced. He said that on Dec. 28, Flynn texted and called Kislyak to discuss the logistics of setting up a phone call between the president-elect and Russian President Vladimir Putin after Inauguration.
An update published in the Washington Post, citing a Trump official, said Flynn spoke to Kislyak by phone before the sanctions were announced, and the conversation did not cover the sanctions. The Trump official later told the Post that Flynn expressed condolences to Kislyak over the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey on Dec. 19 and then made a second call on Dec. 28 to express condolences for the crash of a Russian plane traveling to Syria and to set up the call with Putin.
Trump's national security advisor has been in touch with Russian ambassador
Retired Army Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump's pick for national security advisor, has been in contact with Russia's ambassador to Washington, Trump's team told CNN Friday.
Sean Spicer, Trump's spokesman, said Flynn and the Russian ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, aren't in frequent contact but they have been in touch recently on a number of issues.
Some instances included when the two had a conversation in the wake of the shooting of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in which Flynn expressed his condolences, according to a transition official. The two men also exchanged holiday pleasantries via text message on Christmas, according to multiple transition officials.
The Russian ambassador texted Flynn on December 28 but the two did not connect by phone until December 29, according to a transition official.
A centuries-old law, the Logan Act, forbids any US citizen acting without official US authority from influencing "disputes or controversies" involving the US and a foreign government.
The December 29 phone call was on the same day that President Barack Obama ordered sanctions on Russia, as well as ordered 35 Russian diplomats and their families to leave the country -- but a transition official told CNN that Flynn and Kislyak did not discuss the Russian sanctions.
The Washington Post first reported on the conversations.
Multiple transition officials, however, said that the call focused on the logistics of connecting Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after the inauguration for a phone conversation.
"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 the logistical information," Spicer said. "That was it. Plain and simple."
One of the officials added that Kislyak, in a conversation on December 29, also extended an invitation for a representative from the US to attend the upcoming Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan. The same day as that conversation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made clear Trump would be welcome at the table for Syrian peace talks.
"I would like to express the hope that as soon as the administration of Donald Trump takes office, they will also be able to join these efforts," Lavrov said during a meeting with Putin in Moscow.
The Trump transition official said they are not aware of any additional conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador since December 29.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was asked Friday whether it bothered the administration that Flynn was in contact with the Russian ambassador.
"I've read some of these reports and I think, to answer your question as bluntly as I can, it depends on what he said," Earnest responded. "And I know that some members of the President-elect's transition team have tried to describe those conversations. Obviously, I have zero insight into what may have been communicated back and forth, so I'd refer you to General Flynn himself or spokespeople for the transition who may be able to provide additional insight into the nature of those conversations and why those conversations were initiated."
Flynn's ties to Russia have been scrutinized since Trump tapped him to become his closest adviser on national security.
On one occasion, Flynn was seated next to Putin at a Russian media gala in December 2015, and he previously had a paid speaking gig with Russia Today, the Kremlin's TV network, though it was before he took on a formal campaign role.
On Friday, Trump again, using Twitter, denied claims that Russia had compromising information on him and continued to accuse the intelligence chiefs of leaking the allegations.