A former top White House official has revised her statement to investigators about a key event in the probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election, after her initial claim was contradicted by the guilty plea of former national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to people familiar with the matter.
When FBI agents first visited her at her Long Island home in the summer of 2017, McFarland denied ever talking to Flynn about any discussion of sanctions between him and the ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in December 2016, during the presidential transition.
For a time, investigators saw her answers as “inconsistent,” putting her in legal peril as the FBI tried to determine whether she had lied to them.
Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team is examining whether Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak are in any way related to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. At the time, some suggested Flynn might have violated the Logan Act, a law that prohibits private citizens from conducting foreign policy. It’s highly unlikely Flynn would have faced any consequences from the Logan Act, which has not been used in more than 150 years. But Flynn put himself in legal peril when he told investigators he did not discuss sanctions with the ambassador.
Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his calls with Kislyak and has been cooperating with Mueller. He is scheduled to be sentenced in mid-December.
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Court papers filed in connection with Flynn’s plea indicated that a senior Trump transition official was involved in strategizing over the conversations with Kislyak. That official was not identified in the court papers, but people familiar with the case have said it was McFarland.
Prosecutors have sought to determine what Trump or those close to him knew about Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador, but McFarland does not appear to be a critical witness in that regard, according to people familiar with the matter.
Not long after Flynn’s plea, McFarland was questioned by investigators again about her conversations with Flynn, and she walked back her previous denial that sanctions were discussed, saying a general statement Flynn had made to her that things were going to be okay could have been a reference to sanctions, these people said.
McFarland’s account does not answer the question of what the president knew or didn’t know about Flynn’s interactions with the ambassador, these people said.
McFarland didn’t respond to requests for comment, including emails and calls to her home.
Eventually, McFarland and her lawyer, Robert Giuffra, convinced the FBI that she had not intentionally misled the bureau but had rather spoken from memory, without the benefit of any documents that could have helped her remember her exchanges with Flynn about the Kislyak conversations, these people said.
Mueller’s team appears to be satisfied with McFarland’s revised account, according to people familiar with the probe.
Just days after Flynn talked to Kislyak, however, McFarland said that her memory was clear and that the two had never discussed sanctions or how the incoming Trump administration hoped Russia would respond.
Early on the morning of Jan. 13, 2017, McFarland phoned one of the authors of this article to rebut a column in The Washington Post, which said Flynn and Kislyak had spoken “several times” on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced it was expelling 35 Russian officials and taking other punitive measures.
The column, by David Ignatius, questioned why Flynn was engaging in sensitive foreign policy discussions with Russia when Trump had yet to take office.
McFarland insisted in an on-the-record conversation that Flynn and Kislyak had never discussed sanctions and that they had actually spoken before the administration’s announcement on Dec. 29.
She said the two men had talked about plans for a conversation between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, to take place after the inauguration. And, she said, Flynn had expressed his condolences for the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey 10 days earlier.
“It sticks in my mind,” McFarland said at the time, because just before the assassination, which was captured on video, transition officials were discussing who might receive ambassadorial posts in the new administration.
“Then we saw the ambassador killed, and it was like, this is no longer tea and crumpets,” McFarland said. The killing shook her, she said, because it happened in a country that she presumed had good security for diplomats.
McFarland said that Flynn “called me right after” his call with Kislyak and conveyed the details of their conversation. She said she knew that the call took place before Dec. 29 because by then, she had left Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, where she had been staying with other members of the transition team.
But according to Flynn’s guilty plea, McFarland was still at Mar-a-Lago on Dec. 29. And before Flynn ever called Kislyak, he spoke to McFarland to discuss what he should tell the ambassador, if anything, about the sanctions.
“On that call, Flynn and [McFarland] discussed the U.S. sanctions, including the potential impact of those sanctions on the incoming administration’s foreign policy goals,” the plea agreement stated.
McFarland, who is identified in the document as a transition team official, also discussed with Flynn that “members of the Presidential Transition Team at Mar-a-Lago did not want Russia to escalate the situation,” according to the plea.
Immediately after that call with McFarland, Flynn phoned Kislyak “and requested that Russia not escalate the situation and only respond to the U.S. Sanctions in a reciprocal manner,” according to the plea. Flynn then called McFarland to report on what he had said to Kislyak, “including their discussion of the U.S. sanctions.”
McFarland’s earlier account from the on-the-record conversation also matches public statements from Sean Spicer, the transition team’s spokesman and future White House press secretary.
Spicer said that Flynn and Kislyak spoke Dec. 28, before the sanctions were announced, and that “the call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in.”
“That was it, plain and simple,” he said.
Emails among transition officials at the time of Flynn’s contacts also show McFarland communicating about how to respond to sanctions, according to people who have seen the messages.
McFarland’s statements about Flynn and Kislyak also came under scrutiny by lawmakers and helped scuttle her nomination tobe the U.S. ambassador to Singapore.
In July 2017, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, asked McFarland in writing whether she had spoken to Flynn about his contacts with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
“I am not aware of any of the issues or events as described above,” McFarland replied.
Congressional officials said they found McFarland’s response misleading in light of Flynn’s guilty plea, which he struck four months later.
But McFarland’s defenders noted that she appeared to be responding to a lengthy statement from Booker, who in the same question described warnings Flynn was reported to have received about interacting with Kislyak, whose communications were almost certainly being intercepted by U.S. intelligence, as well as conflicts of interest Flynn may have had related to his business dealings with Turkey.
Booker’s question, however, specifically asked: “Did you ever discuss any of General Flynn’s contacts with [Kislyak] directly with General Flynn?”
McFarland withdrew her nomination in February 2017, after the Republican chairman of the committee made clear that she couldn’t be confirmed without explaining the discrepancies between her written statements and the emails that showed McFarland knew Flynn was talking to Kislyak.