WASHINGTON – Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn denied to FBI agents in an interview last month that he had discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States before President Donald Trump took office, contradicting the contents of intercepted communications collected by intelligence agencies, current and former U.S. officials said.
The Jan. 24 interview potentially puts Flynn in legal jeopardy, as lying to the FBI is a felony, but any decision to prosecute would ultimately lie with the Justice Department. Some officials said bringing a case could prove difficult in part because Flynn may attempt to parse the definition of sanctions.
A spokesman for Flynn said he had no response. The FBI declined to comment.
Flynn 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 meddling in the U.S. election. 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, which were part of the sanctions package it announced on Dec. 29.
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 interview, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed Donald McGahn, Trump’s White House counsel, about the contents of the intercepted phone call. Yates and other officials were concerned that Russia could use the mischaracterization of the call to blackmail the national security adviser and 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 on Thursday, Trump called Flynn a “fine person” and said he had done nothing wrong in engaging with the Russian envoy.
Senior Justice and intelligence 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 political daunting.