Adviser and Russian envoy’s contacts raise eyebrows
WASHINGTON >> President-elect Donald Trump’s national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, including on the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior official said Friday.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer acknowledged contacts between Michael Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak but said a phone conversation occurred Dec. 28, one day before the sanctions were levied. Spicer said the men did not discuss sanctions. He did not specifically deny additional contacts the following day.
It’s not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But the repeated contacts just as President Barack Obama imposed sanctions would raise questions about whether
Trump’s team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia’s response to the penalties.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. for the move, a decision Trump quickly praised.
More broadly, Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the incoming administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for its promised, new closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over intelligence officials’ assessment that Putin launched a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.
The sanctions targeted the GRU and FSB, leading Russian intelligence agencies that the U.S. said were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other groups. The U.S. also kicked out 35 Russian diplomats who it said were actually intelligence operatives.
Trump has been willing to insert himself into major foreign policy issues during the transition, at times contradicting the current administration and diplomatic protocol. He accepted a call from Taiwan’s president, ignoring the long-standing “One China” policy that does not recognize the island’s sovereignty. He also publicly urged the U.S. to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, then slammed the Obama administration for abstaining and allowing the measure to pass.
Questions about Trump’s friendly posture toward Russia have deepened since the election, as he has dismissed U.S. intelligence agencies’ assertions about Russia’s role in the hacking of Democratic groups. In briefing Trump on their findings, intelligence officials also presented the president-elect with unsubstantiated claims that Russia had amassed compromising personal and financial allegations about him, according to a separate U.S. official.
Flynn’s own ties with Russia have worried some Republicans who are more skeptical of the Kremlin than Trump appears to be. After leaving his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, Flynn made appearances on RT, a state-run Russian television network. In 2015 he was paid to attend an RT gala in Moscow, where he sat next to Putin.
As national security adviser, Flynn will work in the West Wing close to the Oval Office and have frequent access to Trump. Unlike Trump’s nominees to lead the Pentagon, State Department and other national security agencies, Flynn’s post does not require Senate confirmation.
Flynn’s contacts with the Russian ambassador were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The U.S. official who spoke to the Associated Press was not authorized to confirm the contacts publicly and insisted on anonymity.
On Capitol Hill on Friday, the Senate Intelligence Committee said its inquiry into Russian intelligence operations against the United States will investigate any possible links between Russia and American political campaigns.
The bipartisan investigation will also include a review of the American intelligence agencies’ assessment of what they say was Russian meddling in the 2016 election, including cyberattacks and other socalled active measures.