Top Trump aide reportedly talked sanctions with Russian envoy

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White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynn walks down the White House colonnade on the way to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump's joint news conference at the White House in Washington, U.S., February 10, 2017.  REUTERS/Jim Bourg - RTX30IOV

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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: new revelations about contacts between a top aide to President Trump and Russia during the transition between administrations.

Earlier this evening, Hari Sreenivasan recorded this conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Just after Christmas, the Obama administration levied new sanctions against Russia for its alleged role in meddling with the 2016 election.

In the days surrounding that move, Michael Flynn, the incoming Trump White House’s national security adviser, spoke several times by phone with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. The Trump team claimed, after this was first reported in January, that Flynn was trying to arrange a phone call between Mr. Trump and Russian President Putin.

Now The Washington Post reports there may have been other motives for the calls.

For more on all of this, we turn to Greg Miller, national security reporter at The Post.

So, first of all, what was said in these calls?

GREG MILLER, National Security Correspondent, The Washington Post: So, we know now that these calls covered the subject of sanctions.

We have multiple sources telling us that Flynn actually conveyed a signal to the Russian ambassador that the sanctions that the Obama administration was imposing, that the Russian government shouldn’t overreact to them, didn’t need to worry about them, that there would be time soon when they would be able to revisit these policies.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Now, you have nine different sources in your story. How do we know this is what took place on those phone calls?

GREG MILLER: Well, these are phone calls which involved the Russian ambassador to the United States. U.S. intelligence agencies monitor a lot of the communications of Russian officials who are here in Washington and in New York.

So these are calls that were all picked up, collected. There are transcripts of these calls. They were recorded, and there are intelligence reports on these calls.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But the White House has said repeatedly that this is not what took place, that sanctions were not discussed. The vice president even went out on TV and said that, per his conversations with Mr. Flynn, that this wasn’t discussed.

GREG MILLER: That’s right.

And you had several senior White House officials, starting with Vice President Pence, who went out on a very big limb for Mike Flynn on this, and that limb has been cut off now.

They insisted categorically that the subject of sanctions had not been raised in these conversations, and that’s not the case.

HARI SREENIVASAN: But let’s assume for a second Mike Flynn doesn’t know that this phone call is being listened to by anybody else than the person he’s talking to. Is there anything illegal that he did in the phone call itself?

GREG MILLER: Yes, possibly.

The difficulty here is that the statute that applies in these cases dates to 1799 and, in over 200 years, has never been prosecuted. It’s something that the FBI just doesn’t really want to investigate or prosecute.

Nevertheless, that statute exists. And it bans unauthorized U.S. citizens from negotiating with foreign governments when they’re not in power, when they’re not yet in a position to do so in the United States. And every indication to us is that Flynn did just that in this conversation.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Is that the reason that Vladimir Putin didn’t retaliate once those sanctions came out? It seemed that there was about a 24-hour gap or so there.

GREG MILLER: Yes, I mean, that was this huge source of concern and surprise and mystery.

I mean, in the history of U.S.-Russia relationships, there have been lots of retaliatory measures, diplomatic sanctions, economic sanctions, expulsions of spies and so forth. It’s almost always reciprocal. But in this case, Putin surprised everybody by saying, you know what, we’re not going to do anything this time, we’re not going to respond, we’re just going to wait and see how this plays out.

And that led to a lot of suspicion in the government. Was there a signal sent? That led to further investigation and scrutiny of these calls between Flynn and the ambassador.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If now Congress or anyone decides to take actions against Mike Flynn, is there the possibility of a chilling effect? Diplomats talk to each other all the time. They have relationships that span beyond administrations. They meet each other in different conferences and so forth.

GREG MILLER: Absolutely.

So, that is an issue. And that probably helps explain why this law has never been prosecuted. Authorities, U.S. authorities, do not really want to discourage people who are supposed to be communicating with officials overseas from doing so.

However, you’re not supposed to send signals like this that undermine the existing government, that are contrary to the U.S. policy. And in this case, it was particularly egregious, because this was at a moment when the United States was just coming to the grips with the fact that Russia had waged a cyber-campaign to upend the 2016 election and try to help elect Trump.

And here his top national security adviser is communicating with the Russian ambassador in that very moment in time and apparently sending a signal, don’t worry about this.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Greg Miller of The Washington Post, thanks so much.

GREG MILLER: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, after Hari recorded that conversation, President Trump was asked about the story while flying to Florida.

Mr. Trump said — quote — “I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it. What report is that?”

National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was among the passengers on Air Force One.

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