WASHINGTON (CNN) — President Donald Trump’s first national security adviser Michael Flynn told the then-Russian ambassador in December 2016 that he didn’t want the US and Russia to get into an escalating “tit-for-tat” after the Obama administration had enacted sanctions in December 2016, according to summaries and call transcripts declassified.
The declassified documents show that Flynn discussed in detail Russia’s response to the Obama administration’s sanctions, despite public denials at the time from senior Trump administration officials. Flynn later lied about discussing sanctions to the FBI, leading to his guilty plea secured by former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in 2017, which Attorney General William Barr moved to dismiss earlier this month.
The call summaries and transcripts show Flynn asked then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to “reciprocate moderately” in response to the sanctions, Flynn said on a December 29, 2016, call.
“Let’s keep this at even-kill (sic) level; then when we come in, we will have a better conversation where we are going to go regarding our relationship,” Flynn says, according to the documents.
In a follow-up call two days later, Kislyak told Flynn that Russia’s response — in which Russia did not escalate against the US — was influenced by their earlier conversation.
The documents were declassified by former acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell before he departed this week. Newly confirmed Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe sent them to Congress Friday, and Senate Republicans then released them publicly.
Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak are at the heart of the controversy surrounding Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI secured by former special counsel Robert Mueller’s team in 2017, which Attorney General William Barr moved to dismiss earlier this month.
The calls are central to resolving questions about Flynn’s attempt to cover up what he and Kislyak discussed about a United Nations vote on Israel and Russian sanctions before Trump was in office.
They also have allowed congressional Republicans to feed into the Trump administration’s recent claims that Flynn’s actions during the transition weren’t out of the ordinary, normalizing activity outside of formal government channels that Mueller documented as he probed the Trump team’s ties to Russia.
Trump and his allies have accused the Obama administration of trying to sabotage the administration by targeting Flynn and other members of the Trump campaign team, and they have sought to undermine the Mueller investigation, which found that the campaign was receptive to Russia’s interference in 2016 and that Trump attempted to obstruct the investigation several times. Flynn was forced out of the White House in 2017 after it was revealed he lied about the calls to Vice President Mike Pence and other top officials.
“Lt. General Flynn, his legal team, the judge and the American people can now see with their own eyes — for the first time — that all of the innuendo about Lt. General Flynn this whole time was totally bunk. There was nothing improper about his call, and the FBI knew it,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who has been asking for the Flynn-Kislyak transcripts for several years.
Barr, in discussing his department’s decision to drop Flynn’s case and in court, has said Flynn’s lies about the calls weren’t “material” to an investigation, that Flynn shouldn’t have been questioned by FBI agents, and that what happened on the calls was even “laudable.” The case has not yet been dismissed from court.
But House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff said that the call transcripts show that Flynn lied to the FBI and explained the FBI’s rationale for a counterintelligence investigation, charging that Trump and his allies were trying to “promote conspiracy theories to distract and re-write history.”
“The transcripts also reveal why Flynn was properly the subject of a counterintelligence investigation and how the DOJ’s effort to dismiss the case against him is so transparently political and destructive to the interests of justice,” Schiff said. “As a result of lying to both the FBI and the Vice President, Flynn posed a severe counterintelligence risk because the Russians knew the real contents of Flynn’s communications and that he lied about them to the some of the most senior officials in the U.S. government.”
According to the transcripts, court filings from Flynn’s guilty plea and the Mueller report, Flynn had asked Russia to not respond too harshly to US sanctions put in place by the Obama administration in response to Russian interference in the election. He also told the Russian ambassador the incoming Trump administration would oppose a resolution about Israeli settlements — a stance at odds with the Obama administration. Flynn asked for Russia to vote against or delay the resolution.
At very least, the call transcripts make clear that Flynn intentionally asked Kislyak for certain foreign policy responses as the Trump transition prepared to take over relations with Russia. The directness of his requests of Russia make it unlikely Flynn would have outright forgotten during his FBI interview what had happened on the calls.
The Mueller investigation found that Flynn had made the requests at the direction of senior members of the Trump transition, who sought to undermine the approach of the sitting Obama administration and work outside of the official State Department channels.
Flynn, in court, admitted under oath to lying to the FBI about the calls when agents questioned him about them in January 2017 in the White House. Following his December 2017 confession, he cooperated with the Mueller investigation for a year about what took place on the Trump transition and in the White House.
Between his calls with Kislyak in December 2016, Flynn was speaking to transition team members at Mar-a-Lago. Mueller did not “identify evidence” that President-elect Trump told Flynn to make the asks on the Kislyak calls, the Mueller report said.
After it became clear in late 2018 that Flynn could serve jail time for his lies to the FBI, he changed heart, telling the court in a sworn statement, “I still don’t remember if I discussed sanctions.”
According to previously released summaries of the FBI’s interview with Flynn, Flynn told the FBI he did not recall any conversation with Kislyak surrounding the expulsion of Russian diplomats or closing of properties. Asked if he had encouraged Russia not to escalate or engage in a “tit-for-tat,” Flynn responded: “Not really. I don’t remember.”
And Flynn answered “no” when asked by investigators if Kislyak described any Russian response to a request from Flynn.
The call summaries made public Friday indicate Kislyak made it clear to Flynn during a call on December 31, 2016, that Russia’s tempered reaction to US sanctions was influenced by previous conversations between the two men, and that sanctions were discussed.
“Your proposal that we need to act with cold heads — uh, is exactly what is uh, invested in the decision,” Kislyak said, according to the documents.
“Good,” Flynn responded.
“And I just wanted to tell you that we found that these actions have targeted not only against Russia, but also against the president-elect,” Kislyak added.
The transcripts and summaries of the calls were declassified by Grenell, a vocal Trump loyalist who declassified a number of documents related to Flynn’s case during his three-month tenure as the top US intelligence official.
Ratcliffe, who was sworn in on Tuesday, reviewed the documents and sent them to Congress on Friday, where Grassley and Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Ron Johnson of Wisconsin released them publicly.
Grenell also declassified and provided to Congress documents about “unmasking” requests made during the Trump transition — which is the process of certain US officials requesting to view the names of hidden, or masked, Americans in foreign intelligence reports.
The unmasking documents, which listed Trump’s expected 2020 opponent former Vice President Joe Biden among more than three dozen officials, has been seized on by the President and the Trump campaign to accuse both Biden and former President Barack Obama of wrongdoing.
The National Security Agency said the unmasking requests were made by authorized individuals and followed standard procedure that included a justification for the unmasking requests. Unmasking requests are a routine part of intelligence work and there have been more requests made in recent years during the Trump administration than there were during the final years of the Obama administration.