WASHINGTON — Former national security adviser Michael Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed US sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies, current and former US officials said.
The Jan. 24 interview potentially puts Flynn in legal jeopardy. Lying to the FBI is a felony offense. But several officials said it is unclear whether prosecutors would attempt to bring a case, in part because Flynn might parse the definition of the word ‘‘sanctions.’’ He also followed his denial to the FBI by saying he couldn’t recall all of the conversation, officials said.
Any decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the Justice Department.
A spokesman for Flynn said he had no response. The FBI and the Justice Department declined to comment.
Meanwhile, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward turned down an offer to be Trump’s new national security adviser, telling The Associated Press that the Trump administration was ‘‘very accommodating to my needs, both professionally and personally.’’
‘‘It’s purely a personal issue,’’ Harward said Thursday evening. ‘‘I'm in a unique position finally after being in the military for 40 years to enjoy some personal time.’’
But The Washington Post reported that one factor in Harward’s decision was that he couldn’t get a guarantee that he could select his own staff, citing a person close to Trump with knowledge of the discussions.
The Post reported that other officials said his decision was motivated by financial concerns about leaving his job at aerospace firm Lockheed Martin, where he is now a senior executive, and the effect it would have on his family.
The path to Flynn’s resignation began when he spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak following Trump’s election and denied for weeks that the December conversation involved sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia in response to its purported meddling in the US election. Flynn’s denial to the FBI was similar to what he had told Trump’s advisers, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
In a recent interview with the Daily Caller, Flynn said he didn’t discuss ‘‘sanctions’’ but did discuss the Obama administration’s expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats it said were ‘‘intelligence operatives.’’ The move was part of the sanctions package it announced Dec. 29.
Earlier, in an interview with The Post, he denied discussing sanctions but later issued a statement saying ‘‘that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.’’
Trump asked for Flynn’s resignation Monday night following reports in The Washington Post that revealed Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence in denying the substance of the call and that Justice Department officials had warned the White House that Flynn was a possible target of Russian blackmail as a result.
Two days after the FBI interview, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates and a career national security official informed Donald McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, about the contents of the intercepted phone call in a meeting at the White House. Yates and other officials were concerned that Russia could not only exploit the mischaracterization of the call — which Pence had repeated on nationwide television — but also did not think it was fair to keep Pence in the dark about the discrepancies, according to officials familiar with their thinking.
At a news conference Thursday, Trump called Flynn a ‘‘fine person’’ and said he had done nothing wrong in engaging with the Russian envoy. Trump said he did not direct Flynn to talk to Kislyak. However, the president added, ‘‘I would have directed him because that’s his job.’’
Trump said he had asked for Flynn’s resignation because of what the national security adviser had told the vice president about his communications with the Russian diplomat. ‘‘I was not happy with the way that information was given,’’ Trump said.
The president said the real issue in the Flynn saga was the divulging of classified information. ‘‘It’s an illegal process, and the press should be ashamed of themselves,’’ he said. ‘‘But more importantly, the people that gave out the information to the press should be ashamed of themselves, really ashamed.’’
Senior officials who have reviewed the phone call thought Flynn’s statements to Kislyak were inappropriate, if not illegal, because he suggested that the Kremlin could expect a reprieve from the sanctions.
At the same time, officials knew that seeking to build a case against Flynn for violating an obscure 1799 statute known as the Logan Act — which bars private citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes — would be legally and politically daunting. Several officials said that while sanctions were discussed between Flynn and Kislyak in the December call, they did not see evidence in the intercept that Flynn had an ‘‘intent’’ to convey an explicit promise to take action after the inauguration.
‘‘It wasn’t about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out,’’ Flynn told the Daily Caller in an interview just before he resigned that was published Tuesday. ‘‘So that’s what it turned out to be. It was basically, ‘Look, I know this happened. We'll review everything.’ I never said anything such as, ‘We’re going to review sanctions,’ or anything like that.’’
It is not clear when the FBI began to probe Flynn’s communications with Kisylak. Senior members of the Obama administration learned in early January that the FBI was investigating the relationship, according to former officials.
On President Obama’s final full day in office, Yates, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and CIA Director John Brennan recommended informing the Trump team of the Flynn matter. But FBI Director James Comey pushed back, arguing that doing so could interfere with the bureau’s ongoing investigation. The FBI is examining contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials.
Comey dropped his objections after the FBI interviewed the national security adviser.
After Yates informed McGahn, the White House counsel informed Trump and then conducted an internal review of the matter, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said.
While McGahn and Trump were briefed on the matter on Jan. 26, it does not appear that they informed Pence. A spokesman for the vice president said he first learned that he had been misled when The Washington Post on Feb. 9 disclosed that Flynn had, in fact, discussed sanctions with Kislyak, contrary to the vice president’s public statements.
Flynn said in his resignation letter that he had ‘‘inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador.’’