WASHINGTON — National Security Adviser Michael Flynn has apologized amid reports that Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador in the days before President Trump’s inauguration, a White House official said.
The apology was directed most notably to Vice President Pence, who had emphatically denied to CBS News last month that Flynn had discussed “anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
Flynn spoke to Pence by phone, the official said.
The White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive personnel matter, said Flynn now says he may have discussed sanctions, but cannot be 100% certain.
The controversy involves a phone call in late December with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, amid the Obama administration’s crackdown in retaliation for Russian hacking during the 2016 presidential campaign. The timing of the phone call — and Russia’s decision not to retaliate against the U.S. measures — have raised further questions about the relationship between Trump’s inner circle and the Kremlin.
Initially, Flynn said he did not discuss sanctions with Kislyak, a denial passed onto the public by Trump spokesman Sean Spicer and Pence, among others. In past weeks, Flynn has said the conversation was general in nature, including holiday greetings.
After a Washington Post story last week cited nine unnamed intelligence sources as saying Flynn and the Russian ambassador did discuss sanctions, the national security adviser adjusted his story. Pence is said to be particularly upset with Flynn’s changed story, said another official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity because staff members were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
While no White House aides have publicly defended Flynn, many do not expect a major shake-up, at least not in the near term. Over the weekend, White House policy adviser Stephen Miller told ABC News that Flynn served “admirably and with distinction” as a three-star general, but declined to comment further because it was a “sensitive matter.”
Flynn’s pre-inauguration phone call with the Russian ambassador has long made him a target. Critics accused him of violating the so-called Logan Act, though that prohibition on private citizens conducting foreign policy has never been successfully enforced.
Democrats, already suspicious of Flynn’s ties to Russia, have all but called for his dismissal.
“If his national security adviser is untrustworthy and untruthful, and his National Security Council staff is in turmoil, that’s a big deal for us in terms of international relations,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., speaking on MSNBC.
Flynn accompanied Trump to his Palm Beach, Fla., estate this past weekend for presidential talks with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Speaking to reporters on Air Force One last Friday, Trump said he wasn’t aware of the reports that Flynn discussed sanctions but promised to “look into” the matter.
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