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White House Admits National Security Adviser Spoke With Russia


There's a question going around Washington today, what did national security adviser Mike Flynn say to the Russian ambassador? New reports say Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with the ambassador back in December. That was several weeks before Flynn's new boss President Trump was inaugurated. The White House has acknowledged that Flynn talked to Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, but they say there was nothing improper. Here's Vice President Mike Pence last month on CBS's "Face The Nation."


VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.

MCEVERS: Here to talk with us now about this is NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly. Hi, there.


MCEVERS: OK. So explain first why it would be significant if Mike Flynn had talked about sanctions with the Russians?

KELLY: Well, the key here is timing, Kelly. I mean, Flynn was about to take office. President Trump was about to take office. That is not the same as being in office. And we are talking about contacts, as you mentioned, unfolding back in December, which you will recall is right around the time that President Obama announced retaliatory measures for Russian hacking in the 2016 election, including these new sanctions. So the question is, if - if - I will emphasize the word - if Flynn signaled to the Kremlin that they might expect a reprieve under a Trump administration - if he did anything that undercut Obama administration policy, that would be, at best, improper, at worst, illegal.

MCEVERS: So aside from what we heard from Vice President Pence, what is the White House saying about what happened?

KELLY: What the White House is saying has been something of a moving target these last several weeks. What the White House has consistently denied - consistently until now - is that sanctions were discussed. Flynn himself has denied that he talked about sanctions with the Russians. But here is the twist, Kelly. The Washington Post, which broke this latest Flynn story, has a quote from a Flynn spokesman who now says Flynn, in fact, doesn't remember. Here's the exact quote. "While he" - he being Flynn - "while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up." Now, that is a comment as of last night. That's a shift.

MCEVERS: So, I mean, is there any way to actually ever know for sure what Flynn and the ambassador were talking about?

KELLY: Right - how we move this past a he said, he said account. I mean, what would move us past that is if there were a transcript. The New York Times is reporting there's a transcript. And we know, of course, that U.S. spy agencies routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats. One of the many mysteries here is that Flynn, of course, as a former Pentagon intelligence chief, he would know that. So why he might have spoken out of turn - if, in fact, he did - why he wouldn't have thought his calls were monitored? We just don't know.

MCEVERS: Where does this all go next?

KELLY: Three key places to watch, I would say - the FBI, which is investigating, Capitol Hill, which is also investigating. The Senate Intelligence Committee - the Intelligence Committee is formally investigating links between Russia and political campaigns. And the other place, of course, is the White House. Today an administration official stressed that those comments you heard from Vice President Pence - those were last month. They now say that account was based on what Flynn told them. In other words, they're saying this is all on Flynn. They are not exactly rushing today to his defense.

MCEVERS: That's NPR's Mary Louise Kelly. Thank you very much.

KELLY: You're very welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.