WASHINGTON — National security adviser Michael Flynn privately discussed US sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials, current and former US officials said.
Flynn’s communications with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were interpreted by some senior US officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions that were being imposed by the Obama administration in late December to punish Russia for its alleged interference in the 2016 election.
Flynn denied Wednesday that he had discussed sanctions with Kislyak. Asked in an interview whether he had ever done so, he twice said, ‘‘No.’’
On Thursday, Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn ‘‘indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.’’
Officials said this week that the FBI is continuing to examine Flynn’s communications with Kislyak. Several officials emphasized that while sanctions were discussed, they did not see evidence that Flynn had an intent to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.
Flynn’s contacts with the ambassador attracted attention within the Obama administration because of the timing. US intelligence agencies were then concluding that Russia had waged a cybercampaign designed in part to help elect Trump; his senior adviser on national security matters was discussing the potential consequences for Moscow, officials said.
The talks were part of a series of contacts between Flynn and Kislyak that began before the Nov. 8 election and continued during the transition, officials said. In a recent interview, Kislyak confirmed that he had communicated with Flynn by text message, by phone, and in person, but declined to say whether they had discussed sanctions.
The emerging details contradict public statements by incoming senior administration officials including Mike Pence, then the vice president-elect. They acknowledged only a handful of text messages and calls exchanged between Flynn and Kislyak late last year and denied that either ever raised the subject of sanctions.
‘‘They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,’’ Pence said in an interview with CBS News last month, noting that he had spoken with Flynn about the matter. Pence also made a more sweeping assertion, saying there had been no contact between members of Trump’s team and Russia during the campaign. To suggest otherwise, he said, ‘‘is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.’’
Neither of those assertions is consistent with the fuller account of Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak provided by officials who had access to reports from U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats. Nine current and former officials, who were in senior positions at multiple agencies at the time of the calls, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
All of those officials said Flynn’s references to the election-related sanctions were explicit. Two of those officials went further, saying that Flynn urged Russia not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.