Friday, May 25, 2018
Politics

Trump's team changes story on contacting Russian diplomat

WASHINGTON — President-elect Donald Trump's national security adviser and Russia's ambassador to the United States have been in frequent contact in recent weeks, including on the day the Obama administration hit Moscow with sanctions in retaliation for election-related hacking, a senior U.S. official said Friday.

After initially denying that Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak spoke Dec. 29, a Trump official said late Friday that the transition team was aware of one call on the day President Barack Obama imposed sanctions.

It's not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as Obama imposed sanctions would raise questions about whether Trump's team discussed — or even helped shape — Russia's response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the United States for the move, a decision Trump quickly praised.

More broadly, Flynn's contact with the Russian ambassador suggests the incoming administration has already begun to lay the groundwork for its promised closer relationship with Moscow. That effort appears to be moving ahead, even as many in Washington, including Republicans, have expressed outrage over intelligence officials' assessment that Putin launched a hacking operation aimed at meddling in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.

In an interview published Friday evening by the Wall Street Journal, Trump said he might do away with Obama's sanctions if Russia works with the United States on battling terrorists and achieving other goals. "If Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions?" he asked.

During a news conference Wednesday, Trump highlighted his warmer rapport with the Russian leader.

"If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia," he said.

The sanctions targeted the GRU and FSB, leading Russian intelligence agencies that the U.S. said were involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and other groups. The United States also kicked out 35 Russian diplomats who it said were actually intelligence operatives.

Questions about Trump's friendly posture toward Russia have deepened since the election, as he has dismissed U.S. intelligence agencies' assertions about Russia's role in the hacking of Democratic groups. In briefing Trump on their findings, intelligence officials also presented the president-elect with unsubstantiated claims that Russia had amassed compromising personal and financial allegations about him, according to a separate U.S. official who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because the official was not allowed to publicly discuss the matter.

The Senate Intelligence Committee announced late Friday that it would investigate possible contacts between Russia and people associated with U.S. political campaigns as part of a broader investigation into Moscow's meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

Trump acknowledged for the first time this week that he accepts that Russia was behind the hacking. But he questioned whether officials were leaking information about their meetings with him, warning that would be a "tremendous blot" on their record.

As national security adviser, Flynn will work in the West Wing close to the Oval Office and will have frequent access to Trump. Unlike Trump's nominees to lead the Pentagon, State Department and other national security agencies, Flynn's post does not require Senate confirmation.

Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. The U.S. official who spoke to the AP was not authorized to confirm the contacts publicly and insisted on anonymity.

The Trump team's account of Flynn's contacts with the Russian envoy changed throughout the day Friday.

Trump spokesman Sean Spicer initially said there was one phone call between Flynn and Kislyak on Dec. 28, as well as a Christmas greeting via text messages over the holidays. He said sanctions were not part of the discussions.

Later Friday, a transition official told the AP that Flynn and Kislyak had spoken by phone on Dec. 29, following a text message from the ambassador the day before. During the call, the Russian ambassador invited U.S. officials to a conference on Syria later this month that is being held in Kazakhstan.

The official also confirmed a phone call between the men earlier in December.

The U.S. official who spoke to the AP Friday described the contacts between Flynn and Kislyak as "very frequent."

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