Among those who lied and suffered memory lapses was Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
There have been so many Trump scandals since 2016—so much defiance of law and Congress—that it’s easy to lose sight of what exactly Flynn did. There’s so much noise and fog that it’s hard to remember why his actions were important.
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During the 2016 election, the Obama administration declined to hold Russia to account for its intervention. That’s a story in itself. On December 29, 2016, however, the Obama administration did at last announce punitive sanctions on Russia.
The imminence of these sanctions triggered a flurry of communications between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. The Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, reached out to Flynn on December 28. Flynn was vacationing in the Dominican Republic, but on December 29, he spoke multiple times with Kislyak.
On December 30, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that Russia would not respond to the sanctions. That same day, Trump tweeted his thanks: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) - I always knew he was very smart!” Another round of calls followed between Flynn and Kislyak.
What exactly happened here? At first, Trump’s team denied that anything untoward had occurred. On January 15, 2017, Vice President–elect Mike Pence appeared on CBS’s Face the Nation to assure the country that Flynn and Kislyak had not discussed the Obama sanctions. “He had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airplane crash that took place,” Pence said, referring to a December 25, 2016, accident that had killed 92 people. “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.”
Pence’s statement was not true. Flynn lied to the FBI about the calls. Back in 2017, Pence insisted that Flynn had lied to him too.
Flynn’s lies mattered not because of some technicality about the Logan Act, the ancient and much-disregarded law forbidding private diplomacy. Flynn’s lies mattered because they may have concealed a deal between Trump and Russia over sanctions.
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The Flynn-Kislyak call was recorded by U.S. intelligence agencies. The judge in Flynn’s case ordered that the call be released. The Department of Justice successfully resisted the order by arguing that the recording was irrelevant to Flynn’s conviction and sentencing.
And so Congress and the public remain unaware of what exactly was said to dissuade the Russians from retaliating in December 2016, and what—if anything—the Russians asked for in return. Congress and the public remain ignorant about whether Flynn acted on his own or was directed by President-elect Trump. Congress and the public remain uncertain whether Pence had himself been deceived when he delivered a false reassurance on CBS in January 2017—or whether he was part of the deceit.