Michael Flynn was at a beachside resort in the Dominican Republic, a stretch of sand and sun that he and his wife had visited for years, when he took a few moments out of their post-election vacation for a call with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
As a veteran intelligence officer, Flynn must have known that a call with a Russian official in Washington would be intercepted by the U.S. government, pored over by FBI analysts and possibly even shared with the White House.
But six weeks later, Flynn was forced out of his job as national security adviser to President Trump over what was said in that conversation and Flynn’s inability to be truthful about it with then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence and other officials now in senior positions at the White House.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday that “the level of trust between the president and General Flynn had eroded to the point where he felt he had to make a change.”
But Flynn’s removal was also the culmination of swirling forces and resentment unleashed by the 2016 election. He embodied the bitterly partisan nature of the contest, leading “Lock her up” chants directed at Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton during the Republican National Convention. His unusual association with Russia — and the discovery of his secret communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak — fanned suspicion among senior Obama administration officials of a more sinister aspect to Russia’s interference in the election. And ultimately, Flynn’s misleading statements about the Kislyak calls added to broader concerns about the Trump administration’s regard for the truth.
The sequence connecting Flynn’s call and his dismissal came to involve two presidents warily passing power, the leaders of national security agencies including the FBI and CIA, and incoming and outgoing transition officials who regarded one another with significant distrust.
Senior Obama administration officials said they felt so uncertain about the nature of the Flynn-Kislyak relationship that they took it upon themselves to scale back what they told Flynn and others on his incoming national security team, particularly on sensitive matters related to Russia. Officials emphasized, however, that there was no formal decision to limit information sharing with the Trump transition team.
“We did decide to not share with them certain things about Russia,” a former senior Obama administration official said. “We just thought, who knew? Would that information be safe?”
Flynn’s rising profile in the Trump campaign appears to have coincided with a resumption of his contacts with Kislyak. The two first met in 2013, when Flynn, then the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, met with military intelligence officials in Moscow on a trip that the Russian diplomat helped to arrange and coordinate.
As Moscow’s lead envoy in Washington, Kislyak’s communications were routinely monitored by the FBI, including diplomatic reports he filed with Moscow in which he documented his interactions with Flynn, according to current and former U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
At the same time, Russian intelligence services were carrying out an assault on the election, delivering troves of emails stolen from Democratic Party servers to the WikiLeaks Web site, according to U.S. officials. U.S. intelligence agencies later concluded that the effort was designed to destabilize U.S. democracy, damage Clinton’s prospects and help elect Trump.
No evidence has surfaced to suggest that Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak were in any way tied to the Russian operation. Nevertheless, by mid-December, senior officials in the Obama White House began to hear about Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak, both from intelligence reports and other sources.
Obama administration officials weren’t sure what to make of the communications. To some, they appeared to be consistent with the kind of diplomatic outreach expected of any incoming administration. To others, already alarmed by the scale of the Russian interference in the U.S. election, the frequency of the contacts seemed excessive and the lack of any effort by Flynn to coordinate his calls with the State Department was regarded with growing suspicion.
Susan E. Rice, President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, did not give Flynn advance notice of the sanctions that the White House planned to impose on Russia over its meddling in the election. Instead, Denis McDonough, who at the time was Obama’s chief of staff, waited until the sanctions were announced to inform his Trump counterpart, a former administration official said.
The measures that Obama announced on Dec. 29 included the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian intelligence officers from the United States, and the forced closure of Russian-owned compounds in Maryland and New York used as resortlike retreats for that country’s spies and diplomats.
Flynn had a flurry of communications with Kislyak in the days leading up to that announcement, including, by his account, an exchange of holiday greetings via text message on Dec. 25. The two also traded phone calls that Flynn said were limited to condolences over the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey and the downing of a Russian aircraft, as well as a preliminary conversation about setting up a phone call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump.
By that time, Flynn and his wife were in the Dominican Republic for a beachside respite before he moved into one of the most demanding jobs in the White House. It was there, at a resort on the eastern tip of the country, that Flynn fielded a Kislyak call as sanctions were announced.
“He got a hold of me,” Flynn said in the Post interview, “I was on vacation, actually, with my wife.”
The digital packets streaming between their phones were intercepted by the FBI, using capabilities provided by the National Security Agency, as part of its routine surveillance of Kislyak. An FBI agent prepared a brief intelligence report summing up the contents of the conversation, officials said.
The report was not widely circulated and might have attracted only scant attention were it not for a Putin move that baffled Washington. Rather than retaliate against the United States with comparable sanctions — standard practice during the Cold War and afterward — Putin seemed to greet Obama’s punitive measures with an indifferent shrug.
Putin’s reaction — praised by Trump in a tweet saying “I always knew he was very smart” — sent officials at the White House, State Department and U.S. intelligence agencies scrambling for clues. What they began to focus on, in early January, were Flynn’s calls with Kislyak.
On Jan. 5, FBI Director James B. Comey, CIA Director John Brennan and Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. briefed Obama and a small group of his top White House advisers on the contents of a classified intelligence report showing that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump. That’s when White House officials learned that the FBI was investigating the Flynn-Kislyak calls. “The Flynn-Kislyak relationship was highlighted,” a former senior U.S. official said, adding that the bureau made clear “that there was an actual investigation” underway.
The Obama administration at times seemed almost paralyzed about how to respond to Russia’s unprecedented attack on the U.S. election system, even as officials watched it unfold. It wasn’t until weeks after the election that the Obama administration sought to punish Russia.
The Obama team was similarly slow in its deliberations over whether and how to confront the fledgling Trump administration over what it had uncovered in Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak.
The issue was forced out into the open on Jan. 12 in an op-ed by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The article revealed Flynn’s calls with Kislyak and called for an explanation from the White House on whether the two men had discussed sanctions.
Pence and other members of the Trump transition team, still a week away from assuming power, checked with Flynn before they publicly denied that sanctions had been discussed during the call with Kislyak.
Sally Q. Yates, then the deputy attorney general, Clapper and Brennan wanted to inform the Trump White House that Flynn had misled Pence and other officials. They were concerned that Moscow could use the lie to blackmail Flynn and didn’t feel comfortable leaving Pence in the dark about being misled.
On Obama’s last full day in office, Jan. 19, Clapper and Brennan made the case to Comey for informing the Trump team about Flynn. The FBI director pushed back primarily on the grounds that notifying the new administration could complicate the agency’s investigation. The bureau, Comey also insisted, shouldn’t be “the truth police,” according to an official familiar with his thinking at the time. “In other words, if there’s not a violation of law here, it’s not our job to go and tell the vice president that he’s been lied to.”
In the days following Trump’s inauguration, FBI agents interviewed Flynn about his calls with Kislyak. That removed the basis for Comey’s earlier objection to notifying the White House, current and former officials said. It is unclear whether Flynn gave the agents an accurate account of his calls with Kislyak. If not, officials said he could find himself in serious legal jeopardy. The FBI interview with Flynn was first reported by the New York Times.
On Jan. 26, Yates notified White House counsel Donald McGahn about the concerns that she and the former intelligence chiefs had about Flynn’s misrepresentations to Pence and others. McGahn, in turn, informed Trump, leading to a review of whether Flynn had violated any laws. White House lawyers quickly concluded that no laws had been broken, according to Spicer.
In his letter of resignation, Flynn said that he had “inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador,” and that he had merely sought “to facilitate a smooth transition and begin to build the necessary relationships” for Trump with foreign leaders.
Current and former U.S. officials described that assertion as implausible, noting that sanctions were such a prominent subject of Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak that it seems unlikely he could have forgotten.
Spicer also suggested that Flynn’s false account of the sanctions discussion was part of a troubling pattern, saying that a “series of issues and series of statements and pronouncements” had damaged Flynn’s standing beyond repair.
Flynn’s version of events finally started to crumble on Feb. 7, when he was informed that The Post was preparing to publish an article about his discussion of sanctions with Kislyak, citing nine current and former U.S. officials. Flynn, at first, stood by his denials. Then, one day later, he acknowledged through a spokesman that he might have discussed sanctions but couldn’t recall.
Pence finally learned from The Post — two weeks after McGahn — that Flynn had misled him. It would appear that neither McGahn nor Trump had informed him of the false statements.
After Flynn apologized to Pence, the vice president seemed open to allowing Flynn to remain in place, according to a senior administration official. But Reince Priebus, Trump’s chief of staff who had also come to Flynn’s defense in January, “didn’t want to let it go,” the official added.