During an unhinged, fact-free meltdown on Fox News, anchor Shepard Smith wrongly accused Lt. General Michael Flynn of calling the Russians after sanctions against that country were announced in December 2016. “So the U.S. places sanctions on Russia, Michael Flynn calls Russia, Michael Flynn lies about calling Russia, and tells others to lie for him about calling Russia,” Smith ranted on Friday.
Aside from noting that the U.S. placed sanctions on Russia, Smith is flat-out wrong. The truth, according to the charging document filed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, is that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak called Flynn on December 28, 2016, the very same day the sanctions were publicized. So as pundits—and a federal judge—take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s fateful January 2017 interview with the FBI, it’s important to take another step back in time and scrutinize the calls that landed Flynn in legal trouble.
Further, who is Sergey Kislyak? Why does he figure so prominently not just in the Flynn matter but also the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the framing of Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, and yet unsubstantiated accusations against Trump’ son-in-law Jared Kushner? His longtime ties to the Obama White House may offer some clues—and raise legitimate questions about whether Kislyak himself was a central player in the set-up of Michael Flynn.
Flynn, the incoming national security advisor, and Kislyak exchanged several calls in late December 2016. At the time, the Obama Administration was retaliating for the Kremlin’s alleged interference in the presidential election with those sanctions; Flynn and Kislyak spoke numerous times between December 28 and December 31. One subject discussed during those calls was how Vladimir Putin might respond to the tepid punishment Obama imposed for the so-called “national emergency” caused by Russia’s “significant malicious cyber-enabled activities.”
In a telling detail contained in Mueller’s indictment, after Kislyak called Flynn on December 28, Flynn contacted an official on the transition team to “discuss what, if anything, to communicate to the Russian Ambassador about the U.S. Sanctions.” Team Trump decided to advise Russia not to escalate the situation, and Flynn relayed that message back to Kislyak.
It’s clear from the timeline that it was Kislyak, not Flynn, who initiated these calls regarding the newly imposed sanctions. From the sequence of events confirmed in Mueller’s indictment, Kislyak called Flynn to ask how the Trump Administration would handle the sanctions; Flynn called a senior transition official (likely Vice President-elect Mike Pence) to discuss the plan; once he was instructed to advise the Russians not to escalate tensions, Flynn conveyed that message to Kislyak. Then Kislyak made it a point to call Flynn again on December 31 to inform him “that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to Flynn’s request.”
Of course, all of this was recorded since Flynn had been under FBI investigation since July 2016 for his alleged Russian connections. The calls were illegally leaked by Obama officials to the Washington Post, leading to weeks of controversy and speculation. James Comey sent FBI agents to interview Flynn on January 24 and Flynn resigned on February 12 amid the growing scandal. The three-star general pleaded guilty to one count of lying to the FBI in December 2017.
Although most Americans had never heard of Kislyak before the Flynn scandal, he is well known in official Washington. Named the “diplomat’s diplomat” by CNN, he served as Russia’s ambassador to the United States during the entire Obama presidency. During that time, Kislyak visited the White House more than three dozen times according to visitor logs; his last known visit to the Obama White House was September 2016.
In 2011, the diplomat hosted “a dazzling dinner in his three-story mansion . . . north of the White House.” The dinner featured “five courses of Russian fusion cuisine for 50 seated guests . . . including senior figures from the [Obama] Defense and State Departments.”
The guest of honor at that lavish feast was Michael McFaul, who Obama had just appointed the U.S. ambassador to Russia. Kislyak and McFaul appear to be close: In a March 2017 interview, McFaul said he “knows Sergey well. I worked very closely with him when I worked at the White House. I saw him often. I’ve been to his house, I’ve been to his dacha.” In November 2016, Kislyak gave a speech at Stanford University, an event hosted by McFaul.
McFaul has been an outspoken foe of Trump since he won the Republican presidential nomination; weeks before the election, McFaul insisted Putin and Trump “have a lot in common” and called Trump a national security threat. McFaul now is an MSNBC international affairs analyst; McFaul routinely regurgitates a number of Russian-collusion conspiracy theories. He told Chuck Todd earlier this month that Putin’s grand plan to elect Trump is working better than the Russian leader hoped because the “chaos President Trump has caused to the Western democratic world, not only within our own country, but within the alliance, with the EU. That is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants.” (This interview is a must-watch—another example of the dishonest people who populated the Obama Administration and now lurk around cable news outlets.)
For his part, Kislyak has been purposefully coy about his ties to Trump associates. He told a Russian late-night host that he his list of Trump contacts was so long that he would “not be able to go through it in 20 minutes.”
Considering that Kislyak’s brief encounters with Sessions and Page helped fuel the Trump-Russian collusion plotline—as well as Kislyak’s claim that during a December 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, Kushner proposed setting up a secret communications channel between the transition team and the Kremlin—Kislyak and his role in this affair should be scrutinized more closely.
Did a Trump foe prompt Kislyak to call Flynn on December 28 and raise the sanctions issue? Was he then prompted to call Flynn again and specifically credit him for Putin’s reaction to the sanctions announcement, setting in motion the ludicrous Logan Act accusations? Or was Kislyak hoping Flynn would say the sanctions would be revisited once Trump was inaugurated, which would’ve led to a serious crisis?
Given the nefarious web of international players involved in the sabotage of Trump’s presidency, those questions are not out of bounds. In fact, they are quite necessary, regardless of the outcome of Flynn’s sentencing this week.
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