Report

White House Rocked by Flynn’s Overtures to Russia

The national security advisor’s conversations about sanctions with the Russian ambassador have landed him in hot water, raising more questions about Trump’s odd affinity for Putin.

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Bombshell revelations about National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s potentially illegal conversations with the Russian ambassador have sullied his credibility, jeopardized his status in the White House, and fueled suspicions that the Trump administration is intent on appeasing a resurgent Moscow.

The episode — in which Flynn reportedly chatted with the Russian ambassador about the possibility of lifting sanctions on Moscow before President Donald Trump took office — reinforces growing concerns among lawmakers in Congress and European allies about Trump’s apparently unshakable affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

With Flynn already mired in a power struggle with the president’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, and other officials, the embarrassing incident threatens to further undercut his influence and bolster Bannon’s role.

Flynn had insisted he never discussed sanctions in a series of phone calls in late December with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. But after numerous officials told the Washington Post otherwise, Flynn walked back his strenuous denials. His spokesman told the Post that while Flynn “had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Despite the gravity of the allegations, the White House — which usually does not hesitate to hit back at unfavorable reporting — did not rush to Flynn’s defense on Friday.

After questions were raised last month about Flynn’s phone calls, Vice President Mike Pence had vehemently denied any sanctions talk had taken place. But on Friday, the vice president’s office said Pence had made those comments to CBS News based on Flynn’s own account of the phone calls.

The question now is whether “Flynn will continue to stand by his previous statements and whether the White House will continue to stand by Flynn,” said Susan Hennessey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked as an attorney in the National Security Agency’s Office of General Counsel.

It is unclear what the leaks might mean for Flynn, who was on hand at the White House for the visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday. President Trump was not asked about the reports on Flynn during a brief press conference, where he only took two questions from the American press. In theory, Flynn could face potential charges for violating the Logan Act, which bars private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments on issues affecting the U.S. government, though no one has ever been convicted under the law that dates back to 1799.

The White House did not respond to requests for comment.

The timing of Flynn’s phone conversations raised red flags, because the calls came just as the outgoing Obama administration was preparing to impose a new round of sanctions on Russia over its meddling in the U.S. election, including hacking into the emails of campaign aides to Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

As a career military intelligence officer, who once ran the Defense Intelligence Agency, Flynn should have been aware that the country’s spy agencies would have been eavesdropping on any phone call from the Russian ambassador and that intelligence officials would have had access to the transcript, former senior officials said.

In his phone calls to the Russian ambassador, Flynn reportedly made clear that ties with Moscow would improve under Trump’s watch, after a rocky period during the Obama administration.

Democrats expressed outrage over the allegations, and the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, demanded Flynn resign if the media reports proved accurate.

“The allegation that Gen. Flynn, while President Obama was still in office, secretly discussed with Russia’s ambassador ways to undermine the sanctions levied against Russia for its interference in the presidential election on Donald Trump’s behalf, raises serious questions of legality and fitness for office,” Schiff said in a statement.

“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.”

Other Democrats, alarmed by accusations that Flynn discussed the lifting of sanctions and then lied about doing so, urged House and Senate intelligence committees to accelerate their investigations into potential ties between Trump’s top aides and the Russian government.

“I’m hoping that today’s news will provide even greater impetus for a bipartisan, no holds-barred investigation,” Rep. Mike Quigley, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, told Foreign Policy. “There’s a little more urgency because they’ve pushed the envelope. These concerns go way beyond just mistakes.”

Both committees are currently carrying out bipartisan investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign, including “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns,” the chair and ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee announced last month.

Apart from accounts of Flynn’s phone conversations with the Russian ambassador, U.S. intelligence officials continue to collect information related to possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russian representatives. CNN reported Friday that some details of a dossier compiled by a former British intelligence agent have been corroborated by U.S. investigators, giving them greater confidence in the dossier’s overall credibility. None of the new information related to salacious allegations in the dossier, according to CNN, and officials said they are still seeking to verify other elements of the report.

Republicans initially refused to expand the scope of the investigation to Trump’s aides, but when Democrats threatened to boycott, the two sides came to an agreement. Still, Democrats remain worried that Republicans could slow-roll the investigation.

“There’s a concern that this will take too long and we won’t get the information we need,” Quigley said.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the reports of Flynn’s phone calls underscored “the gravity and the urgency” of its probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Flynn reportedly is under investigation as part of ongoing inquiries into the Trump team’s contacts and ties to Russia. The FBI is investigating Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chief; Carter Page, a former advisor to the campaign; and Roger Stone, a Republican political operative and longtime supporter of Trump.

In addition to an unlikely Logan Act indictment, Flynn could face charges based on other criminal statutes that prohibit a U.S. citizen from taking direction or providing assurances to agents of a foreign power. But legal experts said it was highly unlikely Flynn would be indicted — unless he lied to any federal investigators. It remains unclear if investigators have interviewed Flynn.

Retired Gen. James Cartwright was convicted of making false statements to federal investigators related to his role in leaking information to the New York Times about a U.S. cyberattack on Iran’s nuclear program. Former President Barack Obama pardoned Cartwright before he left office.

The revelations about Flynn only serve to fuel deep disquiet in Congress and among career diplomats and intelligence officers about the Trump administration’s persistent overtures to Russia without clear demands for concessions in return. Trump has repeatedly flirted with the idea of lifting sanctions on Russia in exchange for better relations in general, or “cooperation” in the fight against the Islamic State.

As Russia already claims to be targeting the Islamic State while it props up Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, it’s not clear what Washington would be getting in exchange for lifting an array of sanctions that were imposed for Moscow’s seizure of Crimea and its backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Some experts and former officials with contacts in Washington and Moscow predict the Trump White House will strike a deal in coming months that would remove sanctions in return for Russian assistance in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and in places like Libya, where Moscow wants to extend its influence.

That’s fueling consternation in Congress. This week six Republicans and six Democrats proposed a bill to require a review of any measure to lift sanctions on Russia.

“There are some, including in the administration, who believe that maybe we can do a deal with Vladimir Putin where he helps us fight against ISIS and in return we lift sanctions,” Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, using an alternate acronym for the Islamic State.

The idea was unrealistic and problematic, said the Florida senator, and would play into Russia’s effort to have a veto over U.S. influence across Eastern Europe or other potential spheres of influence.

“Why do we have to do a deal with Vladimir Putin to fight ISIS? He already claims that he is.… Why would we then have to cut a deal to encourage him to do what he claims to already be doing?”

FP reporters John Hudson and Paul McLeary contributed to this report.

Photo Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce

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