Reports that national security adviser Michael Flynn may have discussed U.S. sanctions with the Russian ambassador before President Donald Trump’s inauguration has revived concerns about Flynn’s relationships with Moscow—and threatens to entangle a member of the administration who has so far mostly dodged controversy: Vice President Mike Pence.
Pence said in a Jan. 15 appearance on CBS’ “Face the Nation” that Flynn’s conversations with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were “strictly coincidental” and had nothing to do with the Obama administration’s decision to punish Russia for meddling in the November election, which U.S. intelligence agencies agree was intended to help boost Trump’s prospects. “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” Pence told CBS.
An administration official told POLITICO that Pence’s remarks came after a conversation with Flynn and were guided by that conversation — leaving open the possibility that Flynn misled the Vice President just as he repeatedly denied the allegations to the Washington Post before acknowledging the topic may have been discussed.
Privately, Pence aides expressed frustration at their boss being placed in such a position.
Even if Pence was not aware that sanctions were discussed between Flynn and the Russian ambassador when he made his comments, the episode could leave him with diminished standing, concerning those around him. For the national security adviser to mislead the Vice President on such a sensitive issue with impunity would seem to send a signal about Pence’s standing in the West Wing, a Pence adviser said.
Pence has been a bastion of credibility within the administration, as the president himself has trafficked repeatedly in unfounded allegations about crowd size at his inauguration and voter fraud in November.
Reports in The Washington Post and The New York Times — sourced to numerous current and former national security officials — indicated that Flynn suggested a round of sanctions imposed by President Barack Obama on Russia could be amended by Trump. The conversations represent a precedent-breaking and possibly illegal move, and raise questions about whether Flynn—who was at the time a private citizen, and whose White House appointment did not require Senate confirmation—signaled an intention to reverse Obama’s move after Trump’s inauguration. Russia opted not to retaliate against the sanctions, which have not been lifted.
After initially denying the allegations, Flynn told the Post through a spokesperson “that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”
Pence wasn’t the only administration official to explain away Flynn’s contact with the Russian envoy. Press Secretary Sean Spicer, then a transition official, said Jan. 13 that Flynn’s calls were about scheduling a call for Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after the swearing in. “That was it,” Spicer said at the time. “Plain and simple.”
Spicer went on to add: “I can confirm having spoken to him about it is those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.”