The transcripts from several phone calls between Michael Flynn and Russian officials became public Friday, including his December 2016 call with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak discussing sanctions the Obama administration imposed on Russia.
The transcripts show Kisylak trying to suss out from Flynn what the incoming Trump administration’s policy towards Russia would be, as Flynn tried to ensure that Moscow took a “reciprocal” response to sanctions issued by the Obama administration as a response to Russian meddling in the 2016 election in support of Trump.
At one point during a call on Dec. 29, Kislyak told Flynn that “now that U.S. policy might, uh, be changing or not, we want to understand what is going to be your policy when and if we are to implement things that we are working on.”
Flynn’s eventual reply was to ask that the Russian government remain restrained in its response to the sanctions, saying: “Do not allow this administration to box us in, right now, okay?”
In a separate call two days later, Kislyak told Flynn that the conversation “had been taken into account in Moscow.”
“I just wanted to tell you that we found that these actions have targeted not only against Russia, but also against the president-elect,” Kislyak added, attributing the sanctions to people “dissatisfied with the loss of elections,” and calling it “deplorable.”
“Good, good,” Flynn replied, adding later that he appreciated “that feedback.”
The dialogues are peppered with bumbling attempts by the two men to apparently ingratiate themselves with each other. At one point, Kislyak suggests that the pair get together for a meal.
“Believe me, I always, I always like a free lunch,” Flynn replied.
The transcripts quickly became public after John Ratcliffe, Trump’s new Director of National Intelligence, announced that they’d been declassified. Ratcliffe’s move came after his predecessor, Ric Grenell, released other documents from the Russia probe. Democrats have accused Grenell of selectively declassifying sensitive intelligence materials, however both they and Republicans together sought the release of the transcripts made public Friday.
The Justice Department’s efforts to get Flynn’s case dropped have revived interest in Flynn’s calls with Kislyak, which were the subject of his 2017 plea deal with special counsel Robert Mueller. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the content of the calls, including whether sanctions were discussed.
He and the Justice Department are now claiming the case should be dismissed, not because Flynn’s statements to the FBI weren’t false, but because the FBI had no business interviewing him about the Kislyak calls in the first place. In one media interview, Attorney General Bill Barr called Flynn’s conversation with the Russian official “laudable.”
In seeking to walk away from its prosecution, the Justice Department has claimed that the calls were appropriate. But what the transcripts make clear is just how egregious Flynn’s false statements to the FBI were. He and his allies have suggested he may have just forgotten that sanctions had come up, even as he acknowledged to the FBI that the conversations took place. But the transcripts show that discussions about sanctions made up a major portion of one of the calls in question.
According to the FBI summary of its agents’ interview of Flynn, he denied that expulsion of diplomats came up on the call. On the call itself, per the transcript, Flynn seemed to discuss that element of Russia’s response specifically.
“We’re not going to escalate this thing … if we send out 30 guys and you send out 60, you know, or you shut down every Embassy?” Flynn said. “I mean we have to get this to a … let’s keep this at a level that uh is, is even-keeled, okay?”
Flynn also told the FBI, per its summary, that he had not been aware of the plans to sanction Russia at the time of his Kislyak conversations. But on the Dec. 29 call, it was he who brought up the issue, after discussing the potential for a secure line. Flynn pivoted with his line about not allowing “this administration to box us in,” and pointed to “what uh, actions they take over this current issue of the cyber stuff.”
In trying to jog Flynn’s memory about the sanctions, the FBI agents used a specific phrase, “tit-for-tat,” that appeared in the transcripts. But when asked by the FBI whether he remembered telling Russia to not engage in a tit-for-tat, Flynn said, “not really” and that the discussion wasn’t “don’t do anything,” according to the FBI’s summary. He again claimed that he was in the dark about the sanctions until they were reported by the media.
Much of the material remains redacted. It also reveals a new, previously unknown interaction between Flynn and Kislyak: a January 2016 conversation in which Flynn apparently called Kisylak to express condolences over the sudden death of the head of the GRU — Russia’s military intelligence agency responsible for orchestrating the 2016 election hacking campaign.
But for most of the late 2016 conversations, Flynn and Kisylak remained focused on finding ways to neutralize the Obama administration’s sanctions, and on the Middle East.
Kislyak reiterates to Flynn that it would be risky for the Trump administration to keep the Obama administration’s sanctions on the GRU and FSB — the successor agency to the KGB — because it would hinder cooperation against ISIS.
“One of the problems among the measures that have been announced today is that now FSB and GRU … are sanctioned, and I ask myself, ‘does it mean that the United States isn’t willing to work on terrorist threats?’” Kislyak asked Flynn during one Dec. 29 call.
The Russian government had long suggested that the U.S. abandon its focus on the Kremlin’s activities in Eastern Europe in exchange for a joint focus on the Middle East.
On the call, Flynn told Kislyak that “we need cool heads to prevail” in response to the Obama administration’s sanctions.
“We need to be very steady about what we’re going to do because we have absolutely a common threat in the Middle East right now,” he added.
Kisylak told Flynn that he understood, to which Flynn then asked that any Russian response to the Obama sanctions be kept to “a reciprocal basis.”
“Then that is a good message and we’ll understand that message,” Flynn added.
At one point, Flynn suggested to Kislyak that President Trump may be aware of the calls, and of the proposals he has been making.
“Globally, I want to keep the temperature down and we can do this if we are smart about it,” Flynn said, apparently referring to the Obama administration’s sanctions.
Kislyak replied, “you’re absolutely right.”
Flynn then said that he hadn’t gotten “confirmation,” yet, but added that “the boss is aware and so please convey that.”
“I will,” Kislyak replied.
Read the transcripts below: