The Donald Trump transition team has acknowledged that its incoming national security adviser has been in contact with Russia's ambassador but denies reports they were plotting over recently imposed sanctions on Moscow.
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A transition team official acknowledged a call on Dec. 29, the day President Obama hit Russia for election-related hacking, but said the conversation was about “logistics” for a call between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Trump, who on Friday is sworn-in as president.
“That was it. Plain and simple,” the official told reporters on the team’s daily conference call.
The official said retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security adviser, texted Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak to wish him a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. He said Kislyak, in a return text, requested and was granted a phone conversation in late December about the “logistics of setting up call with the president of Russia and the president-elect.”
Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
“I believe Ignatius will print an update now that he has been provided information to clarify,” the transition official also said.
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It's not unusual for incoming administrations to have discussions with foreign governments before taking office. But repeated contacts just as Obama imposed sanctions raised questions about whether Trump's team discussed -- or even helped shape -- Russia's response.
Reuters reports that Flynn and Kislyak talked several times on Dec. 29.
Putin unexpectedly did not retaliate against the U.S. 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 2016 presidential 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 U.S. 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 U.S. also kicked out 35 Russian diplomats who it said were actually intelligence operatives.
Trump has been willing to insert himself into major foreign policy issues during the transition, at times contradicting the current administration and diplomatic protocol.
He accepted a call from Taiwan's president, ignoring the longstanding "One China" policy that does not recognize the island's sovereignty. Asked about that Friday by the Journal, he responded, "Everything is under negotiation."
He also publicly urged the U.S. to veto a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements, then slammed the Obama administration for abstaining and allowing the measure to pass.
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 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.
Flynn's own ties with Russia have worried some Republicans who are more skeptical of the Kremlin than Trump appears to be. After leaving his position as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014, Flynn made appearances on RT, a state-run Russian television network. In 2015, he was paid to attend an RT gala in Moscow, where he sat next to Putin.
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 Associated Press 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 said 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, according to the transition official, who was not authorized to publicly discuss the matter and insisted on anonymity.
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."
It's unclear how U.S. officials became aware of the contacts between Flynn and Kislyak, who has served as Russia's envoy to the U.S. since 2008. U.S. monitoring of Russian officials' communication within the United States is known to be common.
Flynn has spoken with other foreign officials since Trump won the November election, as have incoming White House senior advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law. State
Department spokesman Mark Toner said he saw nothing inappropriate in Trump's transition team contacting Russian or any other foreign officials.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.