The Trump administration continues to change its story on when and how many times Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser, spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the phone Dec. 29, the same day the Obama administration announced new sanctions against Russia and kicked out 35 Russian officials in response to Russian hacking. Statements made by White House press secretary Sean Spicer at Monday’s press conference conflict with statements made earlier by the Trump team with regard to Flynn’s phone calls.
The timeline and the explanation for these calls are important because they’re part of a broader, months-long, multi-agency investigation into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election and any possible contacts the Russian government might have had with the Trump campaign. The conflicting stories raise serious questions: Who is telling the truth? And why can’t the Trump administration provide the public a consistent answer on this?
The Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported Jan. 12 that Flynn “phoned Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak several times on Dec. 29.” His source was “a senior U.S. government official.” Reuters then confirmed the Ignatius report, noting that Flynn and Kislyak held five calls that day, according to “three sources familiar with the matter.” The calls took place “between the time the Russian embassy was told about U.S. sanctions and the announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he had decided against reprisals,” the report said. The Wall Street Journal also reported “a series of telephone calls Mr. Flynn made to Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., on Dec. 29,” and that officials have “examined earlier conversations between Mr. Flynn and Russian figures.” And on Monday, CNN reported the Dec. 29 calls “were captured by routine US eavesdropping targeting the Russian diplomats.”
At his Monday press briefing, Spicer offered a version of events that’s different than what news organizations have reported, but it’s also different from what the Trump team has previously said about these calls.
“There’s been one call — I talked to Gen. Flynn about this again last night — there’s been one call that talks about four subjects. One was the loss of life that occurred in the plane crash that took their military choir. Two was Christmas and holiday greetings. Three was to talk about a conference in Syria on ISIS. And four was to talk about after the inauguration setting up a call between President Putin and President Trump. I don’t believe that that has been set up yet, because the call was to say, ‘After…’ I’m sorry, two days ago, they did follow up about how to facilitate that call. So there have been a total of two calls with the ambassador and Gen. Flynn, and the second call came, I think about three days ago that was to say: Once he gets into office, can we set up that call? It hasn’t, to my knowledge, occurred yet.”
Spicer did not give a date for when the first call occurred. He said that when he asked Flynn if he had any conversations with Russian officials other than the ambassador, the answer was no.
Spicer’s new accounting of the calls and what was discussed is a combination of previous explanations. According to Fox News, one transition team official acknowledged Flynn had a call on Dec. 29 with Kislyak but said the conversation was about logistics for a later call between Putin and Trump.
In a Jan. 13 update to his column, Ignatius wrote that a Trump official told him multiple calls happened before the sanctions were announced. The Trump official also told Ignatius that the “initial call was to express condolences to Kislyak after the terrorist killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara Dec. 19.”
Ignatius reported that the Trump official told him, Flynn “made a second call Dec. 28 to express condolences for the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria. In that second call, Flynn also discussed plans for a Trump-Putin conversation sometime after the inauguration. In addition, a second Trump official said the Dec. 28 call included an invitation from Kislyak for a Trump administration official to visit Kazakhstan for a conference in late January.”
On Jan. 13, NBC News reported that Spicer said Flynn first texted Kislyak on Dec. 25 to wish him a merry Christmas. On Dec. 28, Kislyak sent Flynn a text message asking if they could speak by phone, which they did the following day — Dec. 29.
On January 15, Vice-President-elect Pence told Fox News, “I talked to General Flynn yesterday, and the conversations that took place at that time were not in any way related to new U.S. sanctions against Russia and the expulsion of diplomats.”
Pence did not dispute Fox News’ Chris Wallace when he said Flynn “had several conversations with the Russian ambassador.”
Finally, CNN reported that “Flynn and Kislyak had talked other times … according to the Trump official CNN spoke to on January 16th.”
For more on the Trump administration’s conflicting statements on Russia, see Just Security’s chart here.