Vice President Pence first learned that former national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled him about the nature of his contact with a Russian official on Feb. 9, a full two weeks after other White House officials were briefed on the matter, an aide to Pence said on Tuesday.
The timing indicates that Pence would have become aware of the controversy around the same time that a Washington Post report was published, detailing the degree to which Flynn had been in contact with the Russian ambassador to the United States on the issue of sanctions, Pence spokesman Marc Lotter said.
“What I would tell you is that the vice president became aware of incomplete information that he had received on Feb. 9, last Thursday night, based on media accounts,” Lotter said. “He did an inquiry based on those media accounts.”
In a January television interview, Pence said that Flynn had told him the issue of sanctions did not come up in his conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The revelation adds a new layer to the confusion within the White House as it seeks to explain why it took more than two weeks for Flynn to resign his post, even though senior officials, including the president, were aware that he had not told Pence the truth.
President Trump had been aware for “weeks” that Flynn had misled Pence and other officials, but did not act until Monday night, forcing the national security adviser to resign, the White House said on Tuesday.
White House counsel Don McGahn told Trump in a briefing late last month that Flynn, despite his claims to the contrary, had discussed U.S. sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. Trump was briefed “immediately” after the Justice Department informed McGahn about the discrepancy, Spicer told reporters Tuesday.
Sally Q. Yates, the acting attorney general at the time, and a senior career national security official at the Justice Department had informed McGahn at his office about their concerns on Jan. 26, according to a person familiar with the briefing. Spicer said the president and a small group of senior aides were briefed by McGahn about Flynn that same day.
“We've been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth,” Spicer said.
The comments contrast with the impression Trump gave Friday aboard Air Force One that he was not familiar with a Washington Post report that revealed that Flynn had not told the truth about the calls.
“I don't know about that. I haven't seen it. What report is that? I haven't seen that. I'll look into that,” Trump told reporters on the plane.
Spicer said Tuesday that Trump was responding only to a question about The Post report and was not speaking about the overall issue of Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador.
The White House Counsel's Office conducted a “review” of the legal issues and determined that “there was not a legal issue but rather a trust issue,” Spicer said. “The president was very concerned that General Flynn had misled the vice president and others. The president must have complete and unwavering trust of the person in that position.”
Spicer said that “the evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of a series of other issues is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation.” He added that the president had an “instinctive” belief that Flynn had not broken any laws, which was later “confirmed” by an inquiry led by the White House Counsel's Office.
But the scrutiny of Flynn's contacts with Russian officials promises to continue despite his resignation.
In the first days of the new Trump administration, FBI agents interviewed Flynn about his communications with Kislyak, according to current and former officials.
The interview, which was first reported by the New York Times, could expose Flynn to possible charges if he denied to the agents, as he had earlier to Pence and other incoming Trump officials, that he had discussed with Kislyak sanctions imposed by the Obama administration for what it said was Russia’s interference in the November elections.
Lying to the FBI is a felony offense, and the agents were presumably in possession of a transcript of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak when they questioned him.
In an interview with the Daily Caller, which he granted before his resignation, Flynn said he did not discuss anything inappropriate with the Russian ambassador. “If I did, believe me, the FBI would be down my throat, my clearances would be pulled,” he said. “There were no lines crossed.”
Flynn told the Daily Caller: “It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out.” He was referring to the expulsion by the Obama administration of 35 Russians it said were intelligence operatives using diplomatic cover.
“It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We’ll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that,” Flynn said.
For Obama officials at the time, even the promise to review the expulsions would have raised a red flag.
The White House has offered conflicting accounts over the past day about whether Flynn's decision to resign was his own or done at the request of the president, adding to the confusion over how the administration viewed Flynn's actions. Senior officials told reporters Monday night that Flynn offered his resignation voluntarily. And White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said on the “Today” show Tuesday morning that Flynn “had resigned” and was not forced to quit.
“The president is very loyal. He’s a very loyal person,” Conway said. “And by nighttime, Mike Flynn had decided it was best to resign. He knew he became a lightning rod, and he made that decision.”
Spicer, however, said repeatedly at Tuesday's briefing that Trump asked Flynn to leave.
Spicer also said that Trump was not concerned with the nature of the conversations that Flynn had with the Russian ambassador but that the lack of trust created an “unsustainable” situation. “The president has no problem with the fact that he acted in accord with what his job was supposed to be,” Spicer said.
National security officials monitored the calls of the Russian ambassador as part of routine surveillance of foreign officials in the United States. Spicer declined to say whether the president would declassify and release transcripts of Flynn's call with Kislyak.
“It is inappropriate for me to comment on those at this time,” Spicer said. “It is not an issue that has come up.”