On Wednesday, national security adviser Michael Flynn told The Washington Post that he and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak had never discussed the sanctions put in place by the Obama administration in a series of communications in December 2016.
On Thursday, Flynn told The Post — through a spokesman! — that, well, who could say what he and Kislyak talked about. Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up,” the spokesman said.
That's, um, bad. It strains credulity that on Wednesday, Flynn could issue a flat denial about conversations he had with Kislyak, but on Thursday, suddenly his memory of those conversations changed.
It also runs counter to the version of events that Flynn as well as then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence and several other senior Trump officials put out in the wake of the revelations that Flynn and Kisylak had been in contact, even as an investigation by the Obama administration was concluding that Russian hackers had interfered with the U.S. election process for the express purpose of hurting Hillary Clinton and helping Trump.
The two men “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence insisted in an interview on “Face the Nation” in January, adding that to accuse Flynn of discussing sanctions “is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”
That runs directly counter to the information The Post gathered from nine (!) intelligence officials who were granted anonymity to speak candidly. This passage is particularly damning:
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.
The FBI investigation into Flynn's contacts with Kisylak is ongoing. And the Post story is already creating turmoil within the administration.
This from a Politico story today:
An administration official told POLITICO that Pence’s remarks came after a conversation with Flynn and were guided by that conversation — leaving open the possibility that Flynn misled the Vice President just as he repeatedly denied the allegations to the Washington Post before acknowledging the topic may have been discussed.
Privately, Pence aides expressed frustration at their boss being placed in such a position.
In any other administration with any other president, Flynn would be on very thin ice. At the least, he misremembered — repeatedly — the fact that he had talked about U.S. sanctions against Russia in conversations with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. At the most, well, I'll leave that to your imagination — but suffice to say it's not good.
But this isn't a traditional president or a traditional administration. Trump prides himself on not doing the allegedly politically savvy thing and not bowing to pressure from the political establishment. Plus, Flynn is one of Trump's earliest and most ardent supporters — often introducing the candidate on the campaign trail in the waning months of the race. Trump prizes loyalty — especially loyalty expressed early on when he didn't look like a winner — and Flynn has shown that in spades.
This story isn't going away, however. And it's hard to see how Flynn or Trump will be able to simply dismiss it as “fake news” produced by a biased media given the depth and breadth of the sourcing on the Post story. Things look to be getting worse, not better, for Flynn. And Trump is a public relations master, always looking to get ahead of a bad story. Stay tuned.