WASHINGTON — Transcripts of phone calls that played a pivotal role in the Russia investigation were declassified and released Friday, showing that Michael Flynn, as an adviser to then-President-elect Donald Trump, urged Russia's ambassador to be “even-keeled” in response to punitive Obama administration measures, and assured him “we can have a better conversation” about relations between the two countries after Trump became president.
Democrats said the transcripts showed that Flynn lied to the FBI when he denied details of the conversation, and that he was undercutting a sitting president while communicating about sanctions with a country that had just interfered in the 2016 election. But allies of the president who maintain the FBI had no reason to investigate Flynn in the first place insisted that the transcripts showed he had done nothing wrong.
The transcripts were released by Senate Republicans on Friday after being provided by Trump's new national intelligence director, John Ratcliffe, who waded into one of the most contentious political topics in his first week on the job. Ratcliffe’s extraordinary decision to disclose transcripts of intercepted conversations with a foreign ambassador is part of ongoing efforts by Trump allies to release previously secret information from the Russia investigation in hopes of painting Obama-era officials in a bad light.
The transcripts are unlikely to significantly reshape public understanding of the contact between Flynn and then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a central moment in the Russia investigation. They do show that the men did in fact discuss sanctions, matching the general description of the call provided in the 2017 guilty plea that Flynn reached with special counsel Robert Mueller's team.
But the documents will unquestionably add to the partisan divisions of the case, which have intensified in the last month with the Justice Department's motion to dismiss the prosecution.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in a statement that the transcripts show Flynn lied not only to the FBI but also to Vice President Mike Pence, who erroneously stated publicly that Flynn and Kislyak had not discussed sanctions. Trump later forced Flynn out for misleading the administration.
“These calls took place shortly after the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump win, and Flynn was engaged in trying to mute the Russian reaction to sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over that very interference," Schiff said.
But Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, one of the GOP senators who released the transcript, said Flynn had done nothing wrong. Attorney General William Barr has similarly called the conversation laudable.
“Our justice system doesn’t work when one side holds all the cards. But this isn’t just about safeguarding access to justice; it’s also about exposing shenanigans and abuses of power by those entrusted to uphold and defend the law,” Grassley said.
Flynn attorney Sidney Powell tweeted that Flynn “should be applauded for asking for ‘cooler heads to prevail’ and trying to keep things on ‘an even keel’ — encouraging the mutual interest of Russia and the United States in stability in the Middle East and fighting radical Islam.”
The documents show that Flynn and Kislyak spoke multiple times between the time Trump was elected and took office. The call that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about took place Dec. 29, 2016, the day after President Barack Obama signed an executive order hitting Russia with sanctions for election interference.
During the call, Flynn urged Kislyak that any action Russia took in response to the sanctions be “reciprocal.”
“Don’t — don’t make it — don’t go any further than you have to. Because I don’t want us to get into something that has to escalate, on a, you know, on a tit for tat. You follow me, Ambassador?" Flynn said, according to the transcripts.
Kislyak replied that he understood, but that there were angry sentiments “raging” in Moscow. Flynn said that even so, “cool heads” needed to prevail since the U.S. and Russia had common interests in fighting terrorism in the Middle East.
“I know, I — believe me, I do appreciate it, I very much appreciate it. But I really don’t want us to get into a situation where we’re going, you know — where we do this and then you do something bigger, and then you know, everybody’s got to go back and forth and everybody’s got to be the tough guy here, you know?” Flynn said.
The FBI interviewed Flynn about the call in January 2017. In that interview, according to a guilty plea reached with Mueller's team, Flynn denied having asked Kislyak to refrain from escalating the situation over sanctions.
He also said he did not recall a conversation two days later with Kislyak in which the ambassador intimated that Moscow had decided against an aggressive response to the sanctions.
"Your proposal that we need to act with cold heads, uh, is exactly what is uh, invested in the decision," Kislyak said.
The release follows the recent declassification by Richard Grenell, Ratcliffe's predecessor as intelligence director, of names of intelligence and Obama administration officials who in late 2016 and early 2017 asked the National Security Agency to reveal to them the name of an American whose identity was concealed in classified intelligence reports. That American was revealed to be Flynn.
Names of U.S. citizens are routinely redacted in intelligence reports that document routine surveillance of foreign targets, but U.S. officials can ask to receive the identity if they believe it is vital to understanding the intelligence.
The nature of those intelligence reports remains unclear, and they were not among the documents released Friday. The use by U.S. officials of a routine process known as “unmasking” to learn Flynn's identity from those reports has become a major issue for Trump supporters.
There is nothing unusual about unmasking requests, which have been more prevalent at the beginning of the Trump administration than they were at the end of the Obama administration. But supporters of Trump have suggested that the requests were made for political reasons.