Plenty of heads turned Saturday when it was reported that Trump transition adviser K.T. McFarland had described in a December 2016 email how Russia “has just thrown the U.S.A. election to [Trump]." The fuller context of the email later suggested she was merely paraphrasing Democrats' arguments.
But that email now has McFarland in some hot water for another reason: Namely, how she appears to have given a Democratic senator a misleading response to his written question about Michael Flynn's contacts with Russia's ambassador. And in doing so, she becomes the latest in a long, long line of those around Trump who have obscured their Russia-related contacts.
But how bad was McFarland's response? Let's break down the exchange.
Notably, the July query by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) began with an extensive preamble recalling warnings Flynn received that his contacts with the Russian ambassador would likely be monitored by American intelligence, as well as a letter a Democratic congressman wrote asking about Flynn's work in Turkey. (The full preamble is pasted at the bottom of this post.) Then it outlined one specific question, to which McFarland provided a one-sentence response:
BOOKER: Did you ever discuss any of General Flynn's contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak directly with General Flynn?
MCFARLAND: I am not aware of any of the issues or events as described above.
Booker, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee which is considering McFarland's nomination to become ambassador to Singapore, said Monday that McFarland's response to his question was an “alarming development” and that the newly revealed transition emails suggest she gave “false testimony.”
Here's what McFarland said in that December 2016 email, per The Washington Post's reporting:
In the Dec. 29 email, which was described to The Washington Post by two people who have seen it, McFarland characterized new sanctions imposed against Russia by President Barack Obama as an attack against the legitimacy of Trump’s election that could hurt Trump’s efforts to work with Russia.
McFarland indicated that Flynn planned to discuss the issue with Kislyak.
The email was sent to a number of Trump’s transition aides, including incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and adviser Stephen K. Bannon.
There have been a few suggestions that McFarland may have lied to Booker. But her response isn't a direct denial; she doesn't specifically dispute that she discussed Flynn's Kislyak contacts directly with Flynn. Instead, she offers a vague response that seems to allude to Booker's lengthy preamble.
She says she isn't “aware of any of the issues or events as described above.” So what might that mean? The “events” Booker described are the warnings about the monitoring of Flynn's communications, and a letter Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) wrote to the transition team about Flynn's Turkey work. The word “issues” could be read as responding to the part about McFarland discussing Flynn's Kislyak contacts with Flynn, but it's not completely clear. The response is a non sequitur.
But it's still problematic, at best. While discussing Cummings's letter, for example, Booker notes that it mentioned how “Flynn was paid to travel to Moscow for a speech in December 2015 and join Russian President Vladimir Putin at the head table during a dinner honoring the Kremlin-backed media network RT.” This was public knowledge during the 2016 campaign; Flynn even did a lengthy Q&A about it with The Post's Dana Priest. McFarland would argue that she was referring specifically to Cummings's letter when she denied knowledge, but “any of these issues or events” is a pretty broad denial that covers everything that proceeds. McFarland didn't bother to go into detail, to her detriment.
It's also important to note that McFarland is asked elsewhere in the questionnaire about Flynn's Kislyak calls, and she responds more directly. When asked twice by Booker about when she was aware of Flynn's calls with Kislyak, she says both times that she won't disclose “any conversations I may or may not have had” with Flynn and Vice President Pence and says they are confidential.
But the response above still seems to feign ignorance about what Booker was getting at, even as it has now become clear that McFarland had been talking in detail behind closed doors about Flynn's Kislyak contacts. To say that you are “not aware of any of the issues or events” doesn't answer the question and could easily give a false impression.
Below is the full exchange between Booker and McFarland:
Recent reporting has suggested that Lt. Gen. Flynn was warned by senior members of President Trump’s transition team about the risks of his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Flynn was reportedly told during a late November meeting that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s conversations were almost certainly being monitored by U.S. intelligence agencies, officials said, a caution that came a month before Flynn was recorded discussing U.S. sanctions against Russia with Kislyak.
Trump transition official Marshall Billinsglea, warned Flynn that Kislyak was likely a target of U.S. surveillance and that his communications — whether with U.S. persons or superiors in Moscow — were undoubtedly being monitored by the FBI and National Security Agency, according to officials familiar with the exchange. Billingslea then said that he would obtain a copy of the profile of Kislyak, officials said, a document that Billingslea urged Flynn to read if he were going to communicate with the Russian envoy. Flynn’s reaction was noncommittal, officials said, neither objecting to the feedback nor signaling agreement. Shortly thereafter, during the week of Nov. 28, Billingslea and other transition officials met with lower-level Obama administration officials in the Situation Room at the White House.
Furthermore, Ranking Member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Elijah Cummings sent a letter to Vice President-elect and Director of the Transition Mike Pence on November 28, 2016, outlining Flynn’s Russian and Turkish conflicts of interest. In that letter, Ranking Member Cummings explicitly laid out how Lt. Gen. Flynn’s firm was being paid to lobby on behalf of Turkish business interests closely connected to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The letter also made clear the Flynn was paid to travel to Moscow for a speech in December 2015 and join Russian President Vladimir Putin at the head table during a dinner honoring the Kremlin-backed media network RT.
Question: Did you ever discuss any of General Flynn’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak directly with General Flynn?
I am not aware of any of the issues or events as described above.