WASHINGTON (AP) — 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 had lied to the FBI when he denied details of the conversation, and that he was undercutting a sitting president while ingratiating himself with a country that had just interfered in the 2016 presidential election. But allies of the president said the transcripts showed Flynn had done nothing wrong and that FBI had no reason to investigate him in the first place.
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 newly released documents do not include the intelligence that initially concerned Obama administration national security officials about Flynn. He was not identified by name in those reports, and the officials' use of a routine process known as “unmasking” to learn his identity has become a major issue for Trump supporters. But the transcripts shed no light on the unmasking issue.
The transcripts are unlikely to reshape public understanding of the contact between Flynn and Kislyak, a central moment in the Russia investigation. It conforms with the rough outlines of the call described in the 2017 guilty plea that Flynn reached with special counsel Robert Mueller's team of prosecutors.
But it will add to the partisan divisions surrounding the case, which have intensified in the last month with the Justice Department's decision to seek to dismiss the prosecution.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee, said in a statement, that the transcripts show that 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 that 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.
The documents show that Flynn and Kislyak spoke multiple times about foreign policy between the time Trump had been elected and took office. The call that Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about took place on Dec. 29, 2016, the day after President Barack Obama announced sanctions against Russia for election interference.
In it, Flynn urges Kislyak that any actions Russia takes in response 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 understands, but that there are angry sentiments “raging” in Moscow. Flynn said that even so, “cool heads” need to prevail since the U.S. and Russia have 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 that he had asked Kislyak to refrain from escalating tensions over sanctions.
He also said he did not recall a separate 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(tilde) uh, is exactly what is uh, invested in the decision," Kislyak said.
The release follows the declassification this month by Richard Grenell, Ratcliffe's predecessor as intelligence director, of a list of names of intelligence and Obama administration officials who in late 2016 and early 2017 had made the unmasking requests that revealed Flynn as the American citizen whose identity had been concealed in intelligence reports.
There is nothing unusual about that process, known as unmasking, and it's been more prevalent at the beginning of the Trump administration than it was at the end of the Obama administration. But supporters of the president have suggested that the requests were made for political reasons.