WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary disclosure of U.S. intelligence materials, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released newly declassified records on Friday of intercepted calls between former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former Russian Ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak.
The detailed call summaries from December 2016, in the weeks before President Donald Trump took office, offer the clearest public evidence to date that Flynn indeed discussed sanctions specifically during their calls, despite Flynn telling both the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence that they did not.
In one call on Dec. 29, 2016, after the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia and expelled its diplomats for meddling in the election, Flynn specifically mentioned those actions. He then urged the Russians to limit its retaliation rather than further enflame relations between the countries just as Trump was about to take office.
“Make it reciprocal. Don't — don't make it — don't go any further than you have to,” Flynn is quoted as saying in the declassified summary of the call. “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?
But Pence, in an interview on Jan. 15, 2017, was asked if Flynn’s conversation with Kislyak on Dec. 29 set the stage for a tempered Russian response to the Obama administration’s sanctions. He said he had spoken with Flynn about that question and the sanctions did not come up on the call.
"It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation,” Pence said. "They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia."
Trump ultimately fired Flynn after it emerged that he’d lied to Pence about the call. Flynn also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about those same Kislyak calls.
But Trump has since had a change of heart, rallying to Flynn’s defense as the Justice Department seeks to drop its case against him despite his previous guilty pleas, which Flynn later sought to withdraw.
The release of the records, created by the FBI based on sensitive U.S. intelligence intercepts of the Russian ambassador, marked a remarkable departure from the U.S. spy community’s longstanding tradition of fiercely protecting those types of materials from public view.
It comes amid a raging election-year political fight over the origins of the Russia probe, with Trump and his allies seeking to discredit the investigation that led to the president’s impeachment by the House last year.
Democrats, meanwhile, have used the Flynn calls to bolster the claim that Trump’s team coordinated inappropriately with the Russian government in the weeks before Trump took office.
“As a result of lying to both the FBI and the vice president, Flynn posed a severe counterintelligence risk because the Russians knew the real contents of Flynn’s communications and that he lied about them to the some of the most senior officials in the U.S. government,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said in response to the release of the records.
Ratcliffe, who was sworn in this week, was an ardent critic of the Russia probe during his time as a Republican House member. He said Friday declassification requests are reviewed "with the overarching priority of protecting sources and methods, while also providing transparency whenever possible."
“As I stated throughout the confirmation process, transparency is vital to allowing the American people to have confidence in the Intelligence Community," Ratcliffe said.
The call records show that Kislyak repeatedly floated the idea of Trump speaking with Putin on the incoming president's first full day in office — January 21, 2017 — in a secure video teleconference. Flynn does not get back to Kislyak directly, something Trump later expressed frustration to aides about, and on the day before Trump’s inauguration, Kislyak left Flynn a voicemail about the matter.
“I, uh, apologize that I disturb you but I wanted to check whether you have, um, uh, answer to the idea of our two presidents speaking, uh, re-... uh, after the inauguration,” Kislyak is quoted in the call summaries as saying. "You remember our conversation and we certainly would appreciate any indication as to when it is going to be possible."
Flynn responded: "I know you have to have some sort of action, to only make it reciprocal; don't go any further than you have to because I don't want us to get into something that have to escalate to tit-for-tat. Do you follow me?"
On Dec. 31, Kislyak reported back to Flynn with what he said was “a small message” from Moscow about Russia’s lack of retaliation. "I just wanted to tell you that our conversation was also taken into account,” Kislyak said. Flynn told the ambassador he appreciated that.
“We have decided not to act now,” Kislyak said. "So I just wanted to let you know that our conversation was taken with weight.”
"Good. Good,” Flynn responded.
The call summaries were transmitted to several offices in the House and Senate. They were then released to the public by Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley and Ron Johnson, although there are some redactions in the declassified version.
The records were produced by the FBI, former officials said.
The FBI monitored the conversations under the authority of a national security court warrant to eavesdrop on the communications of Kislyak as part of its routine counterintelligence mission, former officials said.
It’s unclear whether more U.S. intelligence documents about Flynn will be released.
Before Richard Grenell ended this term this month as acting director of national intelligence, he said he’d moved to declassify the records he had in his possession, while calling for additional records in the possession of the FBI or other agencies to be declassified as well. He and Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee have both accused each other of releasing information selectively to benefit their side politically.
Although the president, on his own, can declassify anything he wants, the role of declassifying documents typically belongs to the agency that generated the classified documents. But it’s the national intelligence director’s job to coordinate across U.S. spy agencies and serve as the president’s key adviser in working through those complex issues.
Trump suggested earlier this week that a move to release Flynn’s calls could some soon, adding, “I'd like to hear it, too.”