A transcript unearthed Sunday indicates that The Washington Post’s newsroom was deeply divided over whether it was even worth reporting that incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was speaking to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December 2016 -- before the Post published details in a column from an opinion writer who “was able to just throw this piece of red meat out there.”
On January 12, 2017, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that Flynn had phoned Kislyak “several times on Dec. 29, the day the Obama administration announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials as well as other measures in retaliation for the hacking.” Ignatius asked whether Flynn violated the “spirit” of the Logan Act -- an obscure statute that has never been used successfully in a criminal prosecution.
Enacted in 1799 in an era before telephones, the Logan Act was intended to prevent individuals from falsely claiming to represent the United States government abroad. In its motion to dismiss Flynn’s case on Thursday, the DOJ said it was improper for the FBI to have seriously contemplated charging an incoming national security adviser with breaking the law, much less premise a counterintelligence interview on the idea, especially because the bureau had publicly admitted to reviewing Flynn's calls and finding no "illicit" activity.
But, Ignatius wasn't the only one at the paper with information on the communications. Washington Post reporter Adam Entous stated at a 2018 Georgetown Law panel discussion that “sources start whispering to me that there were all these mysterious communications between Michael Flynn, who was then the National Security Advisor designate for Trump and the Russian ambassador, Kislyak.”
According to Entous, this information caused “divisions within the newsroom.”
The transcript of Entous' remarks at Georegetown was first spotted Sunday by Twitter user Techno_Fog, who has extensively reported on the Trump-Russia investigation.
“Initially, I didn’t know what to make of it,” Entous said. “There were divisions within the newsroom. At that point, I’m at the Washington Post... Why is it news that Michael Flynn is talking to the Russian ambassador? He should be talking to the Russian ambassador. He should be talking to him about saving the children of Aleppo, for example. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be having that conversation. I was arguing internally that we need something more than just the fact that there was a conversation, but I’m one of many reporters.”
Ignatius’ column ran on Jan. 12, 2017 – after the leaks and the internal Washington Post discussions about how to use the Flynn information.
Entous, at the Georgetown discussion, explained why a Post columnist could publish the information when the news division wouldn’t:
“David Ignatius wrote a story around the 12th of January, which revealed that Kislyak had been having these conversations with Flynn but it wasn’t clear to Ignatius what the conversations were about,” Entous said. “This is something a columnist can do, unlike me as a news reporter, he was able to just throw this piece of red meat out there and just say, ‘There was this conversation. What was it about?’ I’m defending our decision not to run with this story earlier about just this flurry of questionable communications because I didn’t think it was enough.”
What happened next, Entous said, "is the story of the whole Russia story in a nutshell."
After this story was published, a spokesperson for the Post told Fox News that Entous' point was that "there was an internal discussion about whether the calls on their own, without knowing what was discussed, merited a story."
"This is standard practice," the spokesperson, vice president of communications Kristine Coratti Kelly, continued. "The newsroom and opinions are completely separate. David wrote his piece on his own, confirmed with his own sources. Adam’s point is that David’s column prompted the White House to start talking about the calls and why they were made. We reported that sanctions had been discussed and that Flynn initially denied that he held such conversations. When confronted again by Post reporters, he ultimately backed off that denial."
Kelly characterized this article as a "misreading" of Entous' remarks.
However, speaking to Techno_Fog via Twitter direct message on Sunday, Entous suggested that the Post's newsroom did, in fact, have some knowledge of what was discussed during Flynn's calls: "I did not see a transcript myself," Entous said. "Sources saw a transcript and described it to me." A screengrab of that conversation was shared with Fox News on Sunday.
Kelley, in response, reaffirmed that "we chose to publish once we learned the content of the calls," and that Entous' statements in the transcript were accurate.
On the recommendation of U.S. Attorney Jeff Jensen, the Justice Department last Thursday moved to drop its case against Flynn. The stunning development came after internal memos were released raising serious questions as to why the FBI decided to interview Flynn over his calls with Kislyak, which the FBI had already reviewed and publicly admitted contained no illegal or improper communications.
One of the documents was a top official's handwritten memo debating whether the FBI’s “goal” was “to get him to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired." Flynn eventually pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and sold his home as his legal bills mounted.
The Post’s opinion columnists have played a key role in the FBI's Trump-Russia probe. For example, a 2016 opinion piece by the Post's Josh Rogin entitled, “Trump campaign guts GOP’s anti-Russia stance on Ukraine,” was said to have overstated developments at the Republican National Convention in 2016. A single delegate had proposed a sweeping amendment to change the GOP platform to provide lethal weapons to Ukraine, in a major shift from the Obama administration's policy; parts of that amendment were rejected.
But, the opinion piece framed the development as nefarious, and a possible smoking gun. In an application to surveil former Trump campaign aide Carter Page, the FBI went on to cite Rogin's article word-for-word – without quotation marks, but with a footnoted citation – as evidence that the Trump campaign could be working with the Russians in an illicit manner. The FBI didn't note that Rogin's piece was an unsubstantiated or contested opinion.
The leak to Entous may have occurred around Jan. 5, 2017 -- when, according to former FBI Director James Comey, then-President Obama apparently was briefed on the Flynn call by then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.
On the same day of the Obama briefing, Entous reported that “U.S. officials” informed him “intercepted communications” revealed that “senior officials in the Russian government celebrated Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton as a geopolitical win for Moscow.”
"Why is it news that Michael Flynn is talking to the Russian ambassador? He should be talking to the Russian ambassador."
Entous’ reporting on the Flynn-Kislyak conversations became more prevalent after the FBI’s fateful Jan. 24, 2017 interview of Flynn at the White House. On Feb. 9, 2017, Entous and other Washington Post reporters wrote that Flynn discussed sanctions against Russia during the Trump transition period, “contrary to public assertions by Trump officials.”
These sources – nine current and former U.S. officials – stated that Flynn’s “references to the election-related sanctions were explicit.”
On Feb. 13, 2017, Entous was reporting that then-Acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the Trump White House that “Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail.”
Entous, and the other Washington Post reporters on the story, explained that Yates found “Flynn’s comments in the intercepted call to be ‘highly significant’ and ‘potentially illegal,’ according to an official familiar with her thinking.”
On that same day – Feb. 13, 2017 – Entous made an appearance on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, during which he discussed Yates’ assessment of the Flynn-Kislyak calls and her knowledge that the DOJ would never pursue a Logan Act violation in court.
Speaking with Maddow, Entous remarked: “When this intelligence first came in, which would be in late December, early January, you know, Yates saw the intelligence and was concerned that Flynn was potentially in violation of what is known as the Logan Act, which is a very obscure statute which would bar a nongovernment official from trying to influence another government’s policies. And so, that really was – she knew that that was not something that would be pursued in court. There wouldn’t be a prosecution based on the Logan Act.”
That account was similar to Sally Yates’ now-public version of events, as outlined in a newly released Aug. 15, 2017 interview summary.
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Obama’s awareness of the details of Flynn’s intercepted December 2016 phone calls with Kislyak apparently surprised Yates, according to documents released Thursday as exhibits to the government’s motion to dismiss the Flynn case.
After the Jan. 5, 2017 briefing, Obama asked Yates and Comey to “stay behind,” and said he had “learned of the information about Flynn” and his conversation with Russia’s ambassador about sanctions. Obama “specified that he did not want any additional information on the matter, but was seeking information on whether the White House should be treating Flynn any differently, given the information.”
At that point, the documents showed, “Yates had no idea what the president was talking about, but figured it out based on the conversation. Yates recalled Comey mentioning the Logan Act, but can’t recall if he specified there was an ‘investigation.’ Comey did not talk about prosecution in the meeting.”
The exhibit continued: “It was not clear to Yates from where the president first received the information. Yates did not recall Comey’s response to the president’s question about how to treat Flynn. She was so surprised by the information she was hearing that she was having a hard time processing it and listening to the conversation at the same time.”
Fox News' Brooke Singman and Wilson Miller contributed to this report.