Washington – Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for national security adviser, held five phone calls with Russia’s ambassador to Washington on the day the United States retaliated for Moscow’s interference in the U.S. presidential election, three sources familiar with the matter said.
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, said the sources. They spoke on condition of anonymity, citing internal U.S. government deliberations about the issue.
The calls raised fresh questions among some U.S. officials about contacts between Trump’s advisers and Russian officials at a time when U.S. intelligence agencies contend that Moscow waged a multifaceted campaign of hacking and other actions to boost Republican Trump’s election chances against Democrat Hillary Clinton.
On Dec. 29, U.S. President Barack Obama announced he had ordered the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking U.S. political groups.
The administration told Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, an hour before the decision was made public, one of the sources said.
The phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
A Trump official confirmed one phone conversation between the two men on Dec. 29, and said their understanding was they did not discuss the sanctions.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer earlier Friday said Flynn and Kislyak had spoken on Dec. 28, the day before Washington announced the expulsions and sanctions.
But a governmental official said the calls took place same day the sanctions did.
The three sources stressed to Reuters that they did not know who initiated the five calls between Flynn, a former three-star Army general who headed the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency under Obama, and Kislyak. Nor did they know the contents of the conversations, and declined to say how they learned of them.
One source said there was nothing intrinsically odd or wrong about a Russian diplomat speaking to a member of Trump’s team following the U.S. announcement. Moscow, the source added, probably would want to have some sense of what Trump’s team thought about the measures.
That sentiment was echoed Friday by State Department spokesman Mark Toner. “This building doesn’t see anything necessarily inappropriate about contact between members of the incoming administration and foreign officials,” Toner said.
The other two sources, however, said the timing of the calls raised a question about whether Flynn had given Kislyak any assurances to soothe Russian anger over the U.S. moves.
Alexey Mosin, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, said: “The Embassy does not comment on multiple contacts, which are carried out on a daily basis with local interlocutors.”
An official also said that the two spoke about the possibility for the Trump administration to be part of Syrian peace talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest on Friday said it remained unclear whether such a call between Flynn and the Russian ambassador would be objectionable .
“It depends on what they discussed,” Earnest told reporters. He said he could not weigh in without knowing the content.