For some time now, the administration, including Flynn himself, has been denying that Flynn discussed sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. As recently as two days ago, Flynn twice said during an interview he had not discussed sanctions with Kislyak.
But yesterday: "Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn 'indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up.'"
The talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition, officials said. In a recent interview, Kislyak confirmed that he had communicated with Flynn by text message, by phone and in person, but declined to say whether they had discussed sanctions.Even taken at face value, this story is deeply alarming, as it suggests that Trump's National Security Advisor has indeed engaged in the borderline treasonous behavior of which he's been suspected.
The emerging details contradict public statements by incoming senior administration officials including Mike Pence, then the vice president-elect. They acknowledged only a handful of text messages and calls exchanged between Flynn and Kislyak late last year and denied that either ever raised the subject of sanctions.
"They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia," Pence said in an interview with CBS News last month, noting that he had spoken with Flynn about the matter. Pence also made a more sweeping assertion, saying there had been no contact between members of Trump's team and Russia during the campaign. To suggest otherwise, he said, "is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy."
Neither of those assertions is consistent with the fuller account of Flynn's contacts with Kislyak provided by officials who had access to reports from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats. Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
All of those officials said Flynn's references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.
"Kislyak was left with the impression that the sanctions would be revisited at a later time," said a former official.
But I have a strong instinct that this story isn't quite as straightforward as it seems. I don't think "concerned officials leak on Flynn" is the whole story, especially not when those officials are taking pains to indicate "there was no quid pro quo and that there has been no finding inside the government that Flynn did anything illegal."
Flynn is one of a number of current and former Trump staffers with ties to and/or affinity for Russia, including the president himself, which has created some pressure on the administration to prove that its members aren't compromised. It's tough to prove something that isn't true, however. So these "leaks," widely presumed to be care of officials hostile to the Trump administration, may actually be coming from the administration, to sacrifice Flynn in a bid to create the illusion of concern about treasonous collusion with Russia.
Or maybe there's something else going on altogether. I'm not certain what more is behind this story, if anything, but I do feel itchy that there's more to it than immediately meets the eye.
Maybe I'm wrong. But here are some questions I have, for which there are no readily available answers:
1. The New York Times reports "there are transcripts of the calls, which is why federal officials were 'surprised' by Team Trump's denials." If that is the case, why did Pence publicly say that Flynn did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak? Did he not have knowledge of or access to that transcript? If not, why? Is that merely an indication that Pence is on the outs with Bannon? Pence is a lot of things, including a liar, but he is not stupid and he is not careless. I'm very perplexed by why he would publicly say something so easily refuted by a transcript. It doesn't fit with what I know of how Pence operates.
2. Who are these officials? There's been a huge purge. The White House is half empty. Most Cabinet offices aren't staffed. Trump has surrounded himself with sycophants. Is it really safe to assume that the officials are not acting in service to a major media manipulation being orchestrated by the White House? The one place this administration has a level of sophistication is media manipulation. I wouldn't give them credit for orchestration in many areas, but they are very motivated to fuck with the media. And, if these officials aren't trustworthy, a massive discreditation of the media could be as simple as "leaking" the transcript in short order, which turns out not to include what the anonymous officials said it did.
3. Could it be possible that Pence was actually telling the truth when he said Flynn and Kislyak "did not discuss anything having to do with the United States' decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia"? Is it possible that these nine anonymous officials (who all have access to a classified transcript? which the WaPo apparently did not see?) are administration operatives playing some kind of long game that isn't clear yet? For the media, which Trump and Bannon describe as "the opposition," to get a story this big utterly wrong would certainly help their campaign to discredit the media.
4. Why are officials reporting that Flynn did something that seems to be a clear violation of the Logan Act, but also insisting that he's been found to have done nothing illegal?
There may be valid answers to all of these questions. But, as of this writing, they are not apparent.