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Gen. Michael Flynn Spoke To Russian Ambassador Same Day Sanctions Were Announced

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The timing of contacts between the top adviser to Donald Trump and the Russian ambassador to the United States has raised questions about what they discussed and whether that affected policy. At least one phone conversation happened on the same day the Obama administration announced the sanctions and other retaliations for Russia's meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign. NPR's White House correspondent Tamara Keith joins us now. Tam, thanks so much for being with us.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Good to be with you.

SIMON: I'm sorry to get your name reversed (laughter). This adviser, of course, is Michael Flynn. And what do we know about this conversation?

KEITH: Yeah. So he is Trump's pick for national security adviser. We've learned from two sources on the presidential transition team that he spoke by phone with Sergey Kislyak - he's the Russian ambassador to the U.S. - on December 29. We learned that late last night after, all day yesterday, Trump's team insisted that the conversation had actually happened the day before. And, thus, there was no way that they could've discussed the sanctions.

Then the transition team changed their story. This all first came to light when David Ignatius at The Washington Post wrote that a senior U.S. government official told him that Flynn had called Kislyak multiple times on the day that the Obama administration announced it was imposing sanctions and expelling 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.

SIMON: I think I can guess. But let's make this explicit. What does it matter whether Flynn spoke to the ambassador or not?

KEITH: If Flynn had been negotiating foreign policy with Russia as a private citizen, that could be a violation of the Logan Act, which has never, ever been prosecuted. Contact between ambassadors and incoming administrations isn't out of the ordinary. But the timing is prompting these questions about whether Flynn was trying to influence how Russia responded to the U.S. actions.

Sean Spicer, who's set to become the White House communications director, told NPR last night that, despite the timing, it is, quote, "doubtful" that Flynn and the ambassador discussed the sanctions. He says it was a call about post-inaugural logistics. Another official says that there was also an invitation extended to a conference about Syria that Russia is organizing. It's really impossible - like, completely impossible - to know what they actually talked about.

But the day after that phone call, in a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he wouldn't retaliate until he saw what Trump did once in office. Trump then tweeted, great move on delay by V. Putin. I always knew he was very smart.

SIMON: Yeah. A lot of people were surprised by the moderate tone of the Russian reaction.

KEITH: Absolutely.

SIMON: This is coming, of course, in a week with - Russia's really in the news about alleged hacking and meddling in the 2016 election. Late yesterday, word that the Senate Intelligence Committee is going to investigate possible links between Russia and the presidential campaigns - what more do we need to know? Where does this fit in?

KEITH: Yeah. This was a reversal for the committee's Republican chairman, Richard Burr, who, earlier in the week, said it wasn't the committee's role to look at those things. Now both Burr and the committee's Democratic leader say that they will be looking into, quote, "links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns."

SIMON: Tamara Keith, thanks so much.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tamara Keith has been a White House correspondent for NPR since 2014 and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast, the top political news podcast in America. Keith has chronicled the Trump administration from day one, putting this unorthodox presidency in context for NPR listeners, from early morning tweets to executive orders and investigations. She covered the final two years of the Obama presidency, and during the 2016 presidential campaign she was assigned to cover Hillary Clinton. In 2018, Keith was elected to serve on the board of the White House Correspondents' Association.
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