Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Trump's pick to be national security adviser, did speak to Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak by telephone on Dec. 29, the same day the Obama administration announced measures retaliating against Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential campaign, two Trump transition officials confirm to NPR.
This is different timing than the Trump transition had announced to reporters Friday morning. Transition spokesman and incoming White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said then that Kislyak texted Flynn on Dec. 28, asking to talk. Spicer also said the text messages showed they wished each other Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, and added they spoke by phone later that day, the 28, meaning they couldn't have discussed the retaliation measures or Russia's response.
But now, the transition officials, including Spicer, confirm to NPR that was not correct. The phone conversation, initiated by the Russian ambassador, actually didn't happen until the next day, Dec. 29, the same day as the retaliatory efforts were announced.
David Ignatius at the Washington Post broke the story Thursday that Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador Dec. 29, although the transition said it actually happened the day before. AP published a report Friday night that supported Ignatius' version.
Spicer told NPR in a phone call late Friday night that he had misread the timing of Flynn's texts Friday morning and that accounts for the discrepancy.
Spicer said the call took place "around the same time" as when the retaliation measures were announced, which was some time around 2 p.m. ET. But, he insisted that the details of the phone conversation did not change from what he said Friday morning and called it "doubtful" that Flynn and the ambassador discussed the U.S.'s retaliatory measures or Russia's potential response, because Flynn told Spicer they did not.
The first hint that sanctions against Russia were coming was when President Obama said in an interview with NPR on Dec. 15, "We need to take action. And we will." The Washington Post then reported on Dec. 27 that action was imminent. By late afternoon the following day, multiple news sources were quoting government officials as saying the announcement would come on the Dec. 29.
So Kislyak likely knew an announcement was coming when he asked to talk to Flynn.
Another transition official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject matter, said the ambassador invited the Trump administration to participate in a conference in Kazakhstan on the conflict in Syria set for after the inauguration in late January. Were that to happen it could mark a concrete diplomatic shift in the relationship between Russia and the U.S. The Obama administration has opposed Russia's aid to the Assad regime, essentially putting the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides of the Syrian civil war – even as they have attempted to coordinate on parts of it.
Contact between an incoming administration and foreign ambassadors isn't out of the ordinary. But the timing raises questions, especially in light of Putin's decision not to respond to the U.S. retaliatory moves. No one can conduct foreign policy, except for the current U.S. government. If someone did, they would be in violation of the Logan Act, which states, in part:
"Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."
Others, including Reuters and Ignatius are reporting or have reported that there were multiple phone calls between Flynn and the Russian ambassador the day the sanctions were announced. NPR has not confirmed those contacts.
The news comes hours after the Senate Intelligence Committee reversed course and said it would, in fact, investigate Russian interference in the election, including "any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns."