Obama Announces New Russia Sanctions
President Obama imposes new sanctions on Russia and ejects 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The measures are aimed at punishing Russia’s state-sponsored political hackers and deterring further meddling in U.S. elections. Later in the day, Trump writes in a statement: “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
On December 29, 2016, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn held five phone calls with then-Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak. These calls, and the question of what the two men discussed, became a focal point of the Mueller investigation.
The events preceding the calls provide insight into the ultimate significance of Flynn and Kislyak’s communication. That day, the FBI and DHS released a report detailing malicious Russian cyber activity. The report provided technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence services—known as the RIS—to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. government, political, and private-sector entities. That same day, new Russia sanctions imposed by President Obama took effect, and 35 Russian diplomats were ejected from the United States. The measures were aimed at punishing Russia’s state-sponsored political hackers and deterring further meddling.
At the time, Flynn was in the Dominican Republic while Trump was with members of his transition team at Mar-a-Lago. According to the plea agreement Flynn reached with the FBI, Flynn called “a senior member of the presidential transition team” at Mar-a-Lago (believed to be Trump adviser KT McFarland) to discuss what he should say to Kislyak about the new sanctions. Flynn proceeded to hold five phone calls with Kislyak. Flynn asked Kislyak not to retaliate against the sanctions; Kislyak later told Flynn that “Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request.” According to three sources, the “calls occurred between the time the Russian embassy was told about U.S. sanctions and the announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he had decided against reprisals.” Flynn then called back to Mar-a-Lago “to report on his conversation with the Russian ambassador.” The sheer number of calls between Flynn and Kislyak in rapid succession seems to signify a concerted effort from both sides to coordinate a response.
Whether Trump himself knew about Flynn’s calls remains unknown. According to Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer, Trump met with his national security team that day, which would have included KT McFarland, but it remains unknown if she informed him about Flynn’s conversation. She did, however, write several emails about the calls that were subsequently forwarded to various other Trump team members. In an email to transition official Thomas Bossert, McFarland wrote that Flynn would soon be speaking with Kislyak. Bossert forwarded this email exchange to other Trump advisers, including Flynn, Priebus, and Spicer.
This forwarded email is significant because numerous Trump officials publicly denied any knowledge of Flynn discussing sanctions with Kislyak, including Mike Pence, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, and even Flynn himself. Pence told CBS that “it was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.” Flynn, when asked if he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak, “twice said, ‘no.’” Priebus told NBC that Flynn and Kislyak exchanged holiday greetings and talked over the phone but that “the subject matter of sanctions or the actions taken by the Obama [administration] did not come up in the conversation.” Spicer stated that “the call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in […] that was it. Plain and simple.” Flynn resigned on February 14, ostensibly for “misleading” Vice President Mike Pence about the phone calls with Kislyak, and was ultimately indicted
It is also worth noting that these were not the first calls Flynn made to Kislyak to behalf of the Trump transition team asking him to take a specific action. Just days before, Flynn, reportedly acting on behalf of Jared Kushner, contacted Kislyak and other foreign ambassadors with the intent of persuading them “to delay the vote [on] or defeat” a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements. These calls were not immediately reported, and were only discovered when Flynn’s indictment was revealed. Flynn was forced to resign, ostensibly for “misleading” Pence about the phone calls with Kislyak, on February 14, 2017, and ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI on December 1, 2017.