The next day, the president-elect praised his Russian counterpart for declining to retaliate, “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!” he tweeted.
When Flynn and Kislyak followed up on Dec. 31, 2016, Kislyak emphasized that Russian President Vladimir Putin opted not to escalate the sanctions battle because of his talk with Flynn — despite “raging” feelings in Moscow. And Kisylak argued that the Obama administration sanctions were aimed at damaging the incoming Trump administration just as much as they were the Kremlin.
“I just wanted to tell you that we found that these actions have targeted not only against Russia, but also against the president elect,” Kisylak said.
The exchanges are at the heart of the controversy over the FBI’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump campaign aides’ contacts with Russian officials throughout. They were released Friday as part of a batch of declassified transcripts to Congress and obtained by POLITICO, detailing conversations between Flynn, the retired lieutenant general, and Kisylak in the weeks before President Donald Trump took office.
The documents at one point show Flynn engaged in a prolonged discussion with Kislyak over the sanctions the outgoing administration had slapped on Russia hours earlier for its campaign meddling, an apparent effort to convince Moscow not to retaliate and to embrace a new relationship with the incoming Trump team. They show no sign that he condemned Russia’s interference in the 2016 election to Kislyak.
Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador were a key concern to FBI investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 election and the contacts between Russia and figures in Trump’s orbit during that period. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the details of those contacts and spent more than a year cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller, though he’s since moved to withdraw his plea.
The new materials involve calls on January 5, 2016; December 22, 2016; December 23, 2016; and a voicemail and subsequent phone call on December 29, 2016.
One transcript appears to detail a conversation between Flynn and Kislyak about a U.N. Security Council vote on condemning Israeli settlement moves in the West Bank. “[Y]ou know that the strategic goal is stability in the Middle East,” Flynn told Kislyak. “That’s the strategic goal. And, and, you know, between you and I, and you know this, and we know this, you know between Moscow and Washington. We will not achieve stability in the Middle East without working with each other against this radical Islamist crowd. Period.”
Kislyak replied that Russia would vote to condemn the settlements, but said Russia would “try to help ah… to give additional time for the conversation on this issue.”
“[W]e will try to help to postpone the vote and to allow for consultations,” he added.
“OK, OK, that’s good,” Flynn replied. “That’s great ambassador. That’s all we can ask for it at this point and time.”
During the Dec. 29 call with Kislyak, the pair discussed sanctions at length, despite Flynn’s denials later.
“[T]he idea is, be — if you — if you have to do something, do something on a reciprocal basis, meaning you know, on a sort of an even basis,” Flynn said later in the call. “Then that, then that is a good message and we’ll understand that message. And, and then, we know that we’re not going to escalate this thing, where we — where because if we put out — if we send out 30 guys and you send out 60, you know, or you shut down every Embassy, I mean we have to get this to a — let’s, let’s keep this at a level that uh is, is even-keeled, okay?”
The transcripts also predate the 2016 election, briefly describing a call Flynn made to Kislyak on January 5, 2016, to express his condolences to Kislyak about the death of Igor Sergun. Sergun was the director of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU.
Richard Grenell, who was acting director of national intelligence until Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas) was sworn into the role on Monday, declassified the call transcripts before leaving the administration but left it to Ratcliffe to release them. The transcripts are of calls between Flynn––who was then a member of the Trump transition team, and the incoming national security advisor––and Kislyak, Russia’s envoy to the U.S. at the time.
Before he left office, Grenell emphasized that he didn’t have access to all the call transcripts, which were products of the FBI, but had moved to declassify the ones he had received.
“I declassified the ones we had. There’s a process – they are coming,” Grenell said Thursday on Twitter.
The move is the latest in a series of Flynn-related declassifications from ODNI. Earlier this month, the agency declassified a list of U.S. officials who made so-called “unmasking” requests that revealed Flynn’s name. Biden, who was vice president at the time, made one of the requests. The National Security Agency (NSA) produced the list, and noted that all the unmasking requests came from people with the authority to make them and were handled according to legal protocols. Despite that, the Trump administration cited the news to claim the Obama administration illegally spied on the campaign. When asked at a press conference what law Biden had broken, Trump declined to say.
ODNI also declassified the full text of an email then-national security adviser Susan Rice sent to herself and to an aide memorializing an Oval Office conversation about Flynn and Kislyak. According to Rice’s email, then-FBI Director James Comey told Obama that he was worried about sharing classified material with Flynn, given Flynn’s numerous conversations with Kislyak. Comey added that he had no evidence the incoming Trump advisor had shared classified material with the Russian diplomat. Rice had called for the full declassification of the email, and since called for declassification of the call transcripts.
Obama, according to the email, told Comey to conduct the investigation “by the book.” But Trump has seized on the episode to allege, without evidence, that Obama committed an unspecific crime against his incoming administration.
Trump was asked about the Flynn-Kislyak calls in detailed written questions from Mueller’s team but ignored them, refusing to answer when he learned that Flynn had discussions with Russia’s ambassador to the United States or whether he was ever informed that the calls were the reason Russia didn’t retaliate against the Obama administration sanctions.
Trump has used the Flynn case to fire up his allies in his 2020 reelection campaign, fundraising off Obama and Biden’s involvement.
The FBI opened a counterintelligence operation into several Trump campaign aides in the summer of 2016. Flynn was eyed for his visit to Moscow in 2015, part of a Russian-funded dinner at which he was seated next to President Vladimir Putin.
But by early 2017, after Trump had designated him as his national security adviser, the FBI was prepare to close its case against Flynn, according to recently disclosed documents. That changed when top FBI brass learned of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak, which came just as the outgoing Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russian officials for their interference in the election.
Leaked details of the calls suggested that Flynn urged the Russian government not to retaliate against the Obama sanctions, avoiding a tit-for-tat ahead of the inauguration of Trump, who had promised warmer relations with Russia. But Flynn denied that he discussed sanctions with Kislyak at all.
The existence of the calls set off a debate between the Obama Justice Department — which wanted to inform the incoming Trump administration about the calls — and the FBI, which wanted to keep them secret during its counterintelligence investigation. The debate reached a fever pitch when incoming vice president Mike Pence repeated Flynn’s incorrect statement during a TV interview, and flared again after the inauguration, when Press Secretary Sean Spicer reiterated them.
The Justice Department ultimately informed the White House about the calls, but not before the FBI sent two agents to interview Flynn in the West Wing, where he continued to deny discussing sanctions with Kislyak.
Though Flynn maintained for a year and a half that he was guilty of lying to the FBI, he reversed course last year, hiring a new legal team and alleging that his guilty plea was coerced by FBI officials seeking to perpetuate their ongoing Russia investigation.
He moved earlier this year to withdraw his guilty plea, and last month, the Justice Department moved to drop the case against him, following a review initiated by Attorney General William Barr. Some FBI and DOJ officials involved in the matter accused Barr of twisting their words to justify dropping the case.