WASHINGTON — Transcripts of phone calls in late 2016 between President Donald Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and a Russian diplomat were released Friday, showing that the two did discuss sanctions as the incoming administration sought to avoid escalating the conflict over Russian interference in the presidential election.
The conversations were secretly monitored by U.S. agents as part of intelligence-gathering on then-Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents in early 2017 when he was asked if he discussed sanctions with the ambassador. He has since argued he was unfairly targeted by the FBI, and earlier this month the Justice Department asked a judge to toss out his guilty plea.
The fate of the retired U.S. Army general has divided Republicans and Democrats months before the presidential election, while Trump, who fired Flynn in February 2017, now casts him as a hero.
In the transcript of a Dec. 29, 2016 call between Flynn and Kislyak, it is clear that Flynn was trying to convince Russia not to respond aggressively to the Obama administration decision that day to eject 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the U.S. and impose sanctions on Russian intelligence agencies. The administration’s actions came in response to Russian hacking to influence the election.
The newly declassified transcript — which was released by the Trump administration to lawmakers, who then made the documents public — veers between what appear to be direct quotes and summaries of each man’s remarks.
Flynn’s message to Moscow was: “Do not allow this administration to box us in right now!” according to the transcript. “I know you have to have some sort of action,” Flynn said, but he added he would like Russia “to only make it reciprocal; don’t go any further than you have to because I don’t want us to get into something that have [sic] to escalate to tit-for-tat.”
Kislyak replied that he understands, but sentiments “are raging now in Moscow.”
Flynn replied that he understood, “but I really do not want us to get into the situation where we, everybody goes back and forth and everybody has to be a tough guy here. We don’t need that right now. We need cool heads to prevail.”
At parts of the transcript, it is not entirely clear who is speaking.
“Now when FSB and GRU are sanctioned,” the transcript says at one point, referring to Russia’s two most prominent intelligence agencies, “and Kislyak asks himself, does it mean that the U.S. is not willing to work on terrorist threats, Kislyak poses a question. Flynn says, yes.”
Flynn then repeated his request asking Russia to not expel more Americans than Russians have been expelled, because if Moscow kicks out 60 people, “you will shut down the embassy,” according to the transcript. “Let’s keep this at an even-kill level; then when we come in, we will have a better conversation where we are going to go regarding our relationship.”
The Flynn case has provoked vastly different responses from Republicans and Democrats, as conservatives claim he was railroaded by anti-Trump investigators in the FBI, and liberals and many current and former Justice Department lawyers see the abandonment of the case as an alarming cave by the department to pressure from Trump.
“These transcripts clearly demonstrate that Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn lied to the FBI and the Vice President when he denied discussing sanctions,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. “It should be no surprise that the President and his allies wish to promote conspiracy theories to distract and rewrite history, as the true facts and history are so damning.”
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he would continue to push for “additional relevant disclosures until we are satisfied that the American people know the full truth.”
When he first asked about his conversations with Kislyak on Dec. 29 and thereafter, Flynn and White House officials claimed he had talked about a number of other issues, but not sanctions. The transcripts show that a significant majority of the conversation was about sanctions, and those other topics were mentioned only briefly.
The transcripts also make clear that Moscow’s decision not to retaliate was influenced by Flynn.
On Dec. 31, Kislyak spoke again with Flynn, emphasizing that their conversation two days earlier had been “taken into account in Moscow.”
“Your proposal that we need to act with cold heads, uh, is exactly what is uh, invested in the decision,” Kislyak said.
“Good,” Flynn replied.
Putin’s decision not to retaliate flummoxed U.S. officials, and ran counter to a tit-for-tat pattern established over decades of relations between Washington and Moscow.
At one point in their conversation, the Russian ambassador suggests to Flynn that they are both victims of the punitive measures being levied by Obama in his final days in office.
“We found that these actions have targeted not only against [sic] Russia but also against the president-elect,” said Kislyak, adding that he hopes “within two weeks we will be able to start working in [a] more constructive way.
Nowhere in the transcripts does Flynn admonish or complain to the Russian ambassador for its hacking of Democrats during the 2016 election, or indicate that Trump expected Moscow to pay any price for the hacking or sowing political divisions among Americans via social media.
Trump’s GOP allies say the transcript proves that there was nothing wrong with Flynn’s overture to Kislyak.
“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,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “There was nothing improper about his call, and the FBI knew it.”
But Flynn’s ask of Kislyak was problematic for a number of reasons, analysts say. One, he was seeking essentially to take the sting out of the sanctions imposed by the Obama administration on Dec. 29, they said. Two, these were sanctions imposed in response to a brazen attempt by the Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, they said.
“The incoming administration can signal what it will do when it comes into power, but it can’t undermine the existing policy,” said Ryan Goodman, a New York University law professor.
“What’s astonishing is the Obama team didn’t even realize the full extent of the Russian interference when they imposed those sanctions. Here, Flynn working in coordination with the Trump transition team was undermining the very penalty imposed for the Russian attempt to interfere in the presidential election,” Goodman said.
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The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima contributed to this report.