The man tapped to be national security adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, exchanged text messages and spoke with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in December — around the time of the Obama administration's response to Russian interference during the presidential campaign, a spokesman for Trump acknowledged Friday.
But Sean Spicer, the spokesman and incoming White House press secretary, insisted all of this contact happened before President Obama announced the retaliation, and, as a result, Obama's move to expel 35 Russian diplomats wasn't a topic of conversation.
This came in response to a Washington Post column from David Ignatius that raised serious questions about contact between Flynn and the ambassador. In the column, Ignatius writes he was told by a "senior U.S. government official" that Flynn had called the ambassador several times on the day of Obama's action. Ignatius then asks:
"What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the U.S. sanctions? The Logan Act (though never enforced) bars U.S. citizens from correspondence intending to influence a foreign government about 'disputes' with the United States. Was its spirit violated?"
And it comes in a week in which the focus on Russia and Trump's relationship with the country has been front and center.
Spicer was asked about the column in a call with reporters, and that's when he confirmed that contact had happened, but he said it wasn't as described in the column. Here's the timeline as described by Spicer:
-- "Christmas Day, Gen. Flynn reached out to the ambassador, sent him a text and it said, 'I want to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. I look forward to touching base with you and working with you, and I wish you all the best.' The ambassador texted him back wishing him a Merry Christmas as well," Spicer said.
-- "And then subsequently on the 28th of December [the ambassador] texted [Flynn] and said, 'I'd like to give you a call, may I?' "
-- "[Flynn] then took that call on the 28th and the call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in. And they exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and schedule that call. That was it, plain and simple."
President Obama ordered two Russian diplomatic compounds closed and 35 Russian diplomats expelled from the United States the next day, Dec. 29.
Ignatius has updated his column to reflect what he was told by Trump's team, which initially hadn't responded to his request for comment. Here is what Ignatius wrote in the update:
"UPDATE: The Trump transition team did not respond Thursday night to a request for comment. But two team members called with information Friday morning. A first Trump official confirmed that Flynn had spoken with Kislyak by phone, but said the calls were before sanctions were announced and didn't cover that topic. This official later added that Flynn's initial call was to express condolences to Kislyak after the terrorist killing of the Russian ambassador to Ankara Dec. 19, and that Flynn made a second call Dec. 28 to express condolences for the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria. In that second call, Flynn also discussed plans for a Trump-Putin conversation sometime after the inauguration. In addition, a second Trump official said that Kislyak had initiated a call to Flynn to invite a representative of the Trump administration to a conference that would be taking place in Kazakhstan at the end of January; the official didn't provide a date for the Kazakhstan-related call."
A transition official confirmed to NPR that in addition to talking about logistics for a post-inaugural phone call, the Russian ambassador also extended an invitation to the conference related to the conflict in Syria, which is set to take place in Kazakhstan. The transition official says no commitments about attending were made during the call. Additionally, the official couldn't say whether there had been any contact between Flynn and the ambassador since Dec. 28.
This could all be a whole lot of nothing, or it could be something more serious. It isn't uncommon for ambassadors to try to reach out to incoming administrations. But critics have long raised concerns about Flynn's relationship with Russia and in particular RT, the Russian state-owned English-language network (considered by the U.S. intelligence community to be a propaganda tool). Flynn made appearances on the network and even sat next to Putin at an event celebrating its 10th anniversary.
It's been a week of intense focus on Russia
First, there was the release of the unverified document claiming Russia has compromising material on the president-elect and that there had been contact between Trump's team and Russian officials during the campaign. Trump's team has strongly disputed these unverified (and in some cases verified to be false) claims calling the document and those who reported on it "fake news."
It came to dominate Trump's first news conference since winning the election. In that same news conference, Trump said he did think Russia was behind the campaign-related hacking and document releases, but he also said, "If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what folks? That's called an asset, not a liability. Now I don't know that I am going to get along with Vladimir Putin. I hope I do, but there is a good chance I won't."
Then there were the confirmation hearings for Trump's picks for national security positions. All expressed a harder line toward Russia and its leader than Trump has.
And finally, there were two totally bizarre occurrences on Capitol Hill. Just as the man who hopes to become CIA chief was testifying and a senator was in the middle of asking him about Russian interference, the power went out in the building, cutting the feed to C-SPAN, which was televising the hearing.
And, on the same day, as a congresswoman was making a speech on the House floor, again about Russia, the C-SPAN live stream online switched to a feed of RT.
"This afternoon the online feed for C-SPAN was briefly interrupted by RT programming," a C-SPAN spokesman said in a statement to NPR's Susan Davis. "We are currently investigating and troubleshooting this occurrence. As RT is one of the networks we regularly monitor, we are operating under the assumption that it was an internal routing issue. If that changes we will certainly let you know."