Former national security adviser Michael Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies, current and former U.S. officials said.
The Jan. 24 interview potentially puts Flynn in legal jeopardy. Lying to the FBI is a felony offense. But several officials said it is unclear whether prosecutors would attempt to bring a case, in part because Flynn may parse the definition of the word “sanctions.” He also followed his denial to the FBI by saying he couldn’t recall all of the conversation, officials said.
Any decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the Justice Department.
A spokesman for Flynn said he had no response. The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment.
Flynn spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak following Trump’s election and denied for weeks that the December conversation involved sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia in response to its purported meddling in the U.S. election. Flynn’s denial to the FBI was similar to what he had told Trump’s advisers, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In a recent interview with the Daily Caller, Flynn said he didn’t discuss “sanctions” but did discuss the Obama administration’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats it said were “intelligence operatives.” The move was part of the sanctions package it announced on Dec. 29.
Earlier, in an interview with The Post, he denied discussing sanctions but later issued a statement saying “that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation Monday night following reports in The Washington Post that revealed Flynn had misled Vice President Pence in denying the substance of the call and that Justice Department officials had warned the White House that Flynn was a possible target of Russian blackmail as a result.
One day after his dismissal, the Defense Intelligence Agency suspended Flynn’s security clearance. Officials said the spy agency was reviewing Flynn’s adherence to security procedures in part due to FBI concerns about his conduct.
Two days after the FBI interview, then-acting Attorney General Sally Q. Yates and a career national security official informed Donald McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, about the contents of the intercepted phone call in a meeting at the White House. Yates and other officials were concerned that Russia could not only exploit the mischaracterization of the call — which Pence had repeated on nationwide television — but also did not think it was fair to keep Pence in the dark about the discrepancies, according to officials familiar with their thinking.
At a news conference Thursday, Trump called Flynn a “fine person” and said he had done nothing wrong in engaging with the Russian envoy. Trump said he did not direct Flynn to talk to Kislyak. However, the president added, “I would have directed him because that’s his job.”
Trump said he had asked for Flynn’s resignation because of what the national security adviser had told the vice president about his communications with the Russian diplomat. “I was not happy with the way that information was given,” Trump said.
The president said the real issue in the Flynn saga was the divulging of classified information. “It’s an illegal process, and the press should be ashamed of themselves,” he said. “But more importantly, the people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves, really ashamed.”
Senior officials who have reviewed the phone call thought Flynn’s statements to Kislyak were inappropriate, if not illegal, because he suggested that the Kremlin could expect a reprieve from the sanctions.
At the same time, officials knew that seeking to build a case against Flynn for violating an obscure 1799 statute known as the Logan Act — which bars private citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes — would be legally and political daunting. Several officials said that while sanctions were discussed between Flynn and Kislyak in the December call, they did not see evidence in the intercept that Flynn had an “intent” to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.
“It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out,” Flynn told the Daily Caller in an interview just before he resigned and published Tuesday. “So that’s what it turned out to be. 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.”
It is not clear when the FBI began to probe Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Senior members of the Obama administration learned in early January that the FBI was investigating the relationship, according to former officials.
On President Barack Obama’s final full day in office, Yates, Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper and CIA Director John O. Brennan recommended informing the Trump team of the Flynn matter. But FBI Director James B. Comey pushed back, arguing that doing so could interfere with the bureau’s ongoing investigation. The FBI is examining contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Comey dropped his objections after the FBI interviewed the national security adviser.
After Yates informed McGahn, the White House counsel informed Trump and then conducted an internal review of the matter, according to White House press secretary Sean Spicer.
While McGahn and Trump were briefed on the matter on Jan. 26, it does not appear that they informed Pence. A spokesman for the vice president said he first learned that he had been misled when The Washington Post on Feb. 9 disclosed that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions with Kislyak, contrary to the vice president’s public statements.
Flynn said in his resignation letter that he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.”
Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.