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Flynn in 'Hot Seat' Over Discussing Sanctions With Russians

White House aides are privately calling for the ouster of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn over discussing hacking sanctions with the Russians
Image: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn answers questions in the briefing room of the White House Feb. 1, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
National Security Adviser Michael Flynn answers questions at the White House on Feb. 1.Win McNamee / Getty Images

National Security Adviser Mike Flynn has the full confidence of the president, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway told NBC News on Monday, appearing to signal that Flynn's job is safe despite his changing account of whether he discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador in December.

But moments later, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said the president was evaluating the situation and was having conversations with the vice president about his discussions with Flynn on the matter.

The mixed messages left Flynn's status unclear.

He has been in the hot seat since Friday, when The Washington Post first reported that nine current and former officials had seen intelligence reports asserting that he discussed sanctions with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, despite his assertions to The Post, to Vice President Mike Pence and to Spicer that the subject didn't come up.

A senior intelligence official confirmed to NBC News that Flynn discussed the Obama sanctions, which were imposed to punish Russia for a campaign to interfere in the election in part to help Trump.

The intelligence official said there had been no finding inside the government that Flynn did anything illegal.

Through a spokesman, Flynn amended his account to NBC News and others, now saying he couldn't be sure the topic of sanctions didn't come up.

Conway's comments came after Flynn called Pence, according to a senior administration official, to apologize about how he characterized his conversations with the Russian ambassador.

Speaking to MSNBC anchor Steve Kornacki, Conway declined to confirm Flynn's apology to Pence, who said on national television that Flynn did not discuss the Obama administration's sanctions on Russia.

"I won't reveal that," she said. "That's a conversation between the Vice President and him."

Democrats reacted with fury to the news that Flynn broached the subject of sanctions before he took office.

Many said that any discussion of sanctions between Flynn, then a private citizen, and the Russian government would have been improper, even if it was legal. A 1799 law called the Logan Act forbids private citizens from negotiating disputes with U.S. adversaries, but it has never been enforced.

One of the calls between Flynn and the ambassador took place the day the sanctions were imposed over Russia's election hacking and leaking, and Democrats feared that Flynn was sending a message that the Russians should expect those sanctions to be lifted.

Although the U.S. expelled 35 Russian diplomats, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised experts by not responding in kind.

Trump the next day tweeted, "Great move on delay (by V. Putin) — I always knew he was very smart!"

"If the allegations are true, (Flynn) has misled the country about something as serious as secret communications with the Russian Ambassador designed to undermine U.S. policy," Rep. Adam Schiff told NBC News' Andrea Mitchell.

The context, Schiff said, is that "our intelligence community has already concluded that Russia intervened to help elect, in a sense, Donald Trump."

"Flynn was one of his top surrogates during the campaign, and then after that very election when President Obama imposes sanctions to punish Russia, you have this secret communication, which the White House reported was just a Christmas greeting — now we find out they discussed sanctions," Schiff said.

"That might explain why Putin had such a restrained reaction to the imposition of American sanctions. But in any event, misleading the country on a subject this serious, if those allegations are true, he has got to go."

Multiple administration sources told NBC News that Flynn was not in danger of being removed, but that the episode has damaged him.

Flynn is "fine — for now," one senior White House official said, noting that the national security advisor has "nine lives."

But that same official also pointed out that former President Ronald Reagan had high turn over in this position, saying he went through six national security advisors in eight years.

Still, another source with direct knowledge told NBC News that Flynn has "made enemies inside the building" who are now "all aligned against him." According to this person, discussions took place while in Florida about how to replace Flynn and with whom.

"[Flynn] has made a lot of major mistakes," that source said adding "Right now, he's in the hot seat."

Flynn spent the weekend in Florida with the president as he hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife at his Mar-A-Lago estate.

For those who have spent time in the orbit, conventional wisdom in Trump World is to stay close to Trump, known to be the final arbiter in situations such as these. That's something that, that source told NBC News, Flynn knows. The key will be for Flynn to stay close to Trump without further angering him, the source added.

That could be difficult in light of recent reports about Flynn's calls with Russia.

"When you generate negative press…he doesn't like it," the source added.

An embattled national security advisor isn't the only internal challenge the Trump administration faces as it heads into its fourth week. Claims that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus isn't up to the task ahead of him came Sunday, in a cable news interview with Newsmax CEO and close friend of Trump's, Chris Ruddy.

Calling Priebus a "good guy" and "well-intentioned" Ruddy went on to say that "he clearly doesn't know how the federal agencies work," during an interview on CNN.

"He doesn't have a real good system. He doesn't know how the communications flow." Adding to the intrigue was the fact that Ruddy spent time with Trump over the weekend, leading to speculation that he might be voicing the president's own concerns.

Hours later, Ruddy walked his assessment back — and made sure to note that his frank words were his own. Taking to Twitter, he said "Reince just briefed me on new WH plans. Impressive! CNN today my personal view. Told him I have 'open mind' based on his results."

Multiple sources pushed back on Ruddy's comments when asked Monday, with senior officials calling the Priebus news "totally overblown."

The same source with direct knowledge of the situation tells NBC News that speculation about Priebus' job being in danger is upwards of "90 percent bulls---" and that "there's nothing to see" here.

"Reince is going to be fine," the source said. "Mike Flynn is another story."