TRUMP TRAN­SI­TION Se­nior aide held talks with Rus­sia amid sanc­tions

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - NATION - By Julie Pace Julie Pace is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

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 on 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 next day.

It’s not un­usual for in­com­ing ad­min­is­tra­tions to have dis­cus­sions with for­eign gov­ern­ments be­fore tak­ing of­fice. But the re­peated con­tacts just as Pres­i­dent 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 ad­vance its promised, new closer re­la­tion­ship with Moscow. That ef­fort ap­pears to be mov­ing ahead, even as many in Washington have ex­pressed out­rage over in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials’ as­sess­ment that Putin launched a hack­ing op­er­a­tion aimed at med­dling in the U.S. elec­tion to ben­e­fit Trump.

Dur­ing a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, Trump point­edly would not say whether he planned to re­peal the sanc­tions or­dered by Obama. He again high­lighted his warmer rap­port with the Rus­sian leader.

“If Putin likes Don­ald Trump, I con­sider that an as­set, not a li­a­bil­ity, be­cause we have a hor­ri­ble re­la­tion­ship with Rus­sia,” he said.

The sanc­tions sin­gled out 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.

Trump ac­knowl­edged for the first time this week that he ac­cepts that Rus­sia was be­hind the hack­ing. But he ques­tioned whether of­fi­cials were leak­ing in­for­ma­tion about their meet­ings with him.

Flynn’s own ties with Rus­sia have wor­ried some Repub­li­cans who are skep­ti­cal of the Krem­lin. 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.

Evan Vucci / As­so­ci­ated Press

Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald Trump’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser and Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to the U.S. have had fre­quent con­tacts in re­cent weeks. Trump has ad­vo­cated for stronger ties with Rus­sia.

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