In the wake of the announcement that the Senate Intelligence Committee plans to investigate potential contacts between President-elect Donald Trump's campaign operation and the Russian government, Trump's transition team is conceding that at least one member of Trump's inner circle has been in contact with the Russian ambassador.
According to transition officials, Ret. Army Gen. Michael Flynn — who is serving as national security advisor for Trump and who has been a lightning rod for Russia-related controversy for several years — spoke with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on a number of occasions, including on December 29th, the day the Obama administration announced sanctions against Russia for their alleged involvement in the hacking of former Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta's email.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer told CNN that Flynn and the Russian ambassador "aren't in frequent contact but they have been in touch recently on a number of issues." Spicer claims that Flynn called to express condolences on the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, and to arrange a post-inauguration phone call between Trump and Putin. He denies that Flynn had substantive conversations about United States policy, but the timing of at least one of those calls strains the credibility of that statement.
The call in question — a call on December 29th, the day that Obama announced sanctions against Russia — coincided with a remarkable change in Russian President Vladimir Putin's tone in response to Obama's announced sanctions. Putin had warned prior to the announcement of sanctions that any hostile action taken by the United States would be met by "asymmetric action" that would punish the United States severely. The morning the sanctions were announced, Putin struck a similarly hostile tone, promising retribution against United States action.
As the day wore on, however, Putin's response took on a mocking, almost jovial tone, complete with a tweet from the Russian embassy labeling Obama a "lame duck" (indicating Russia's belief that the sanctions might not last) and announcing that he would not, in fact, expel United States diplomats in reprisal as he had previously threatened.
The timing of Flynn's call, combined with the softening of Russia's response, raises at least the possibility that Flynn acted as the conduit to reassure the Russian government that the incoming Trump administration would not honor the sanctions imposed by Obama. If so, that would constitute at least a potential violation of the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens from negotiating matters involving United States policy with foreign governments without authority.
Flynn's ties with Russia have been a subject of controversy for the Trump campaign since Flynn became an informal advisor for Trump during the campaign. Flynn was pushed aside by President Obama amidst a cloud of allegations that he had accepted either money or favors from the Kremlin while on active duty with the Army. Flynn did himself no favors in terms of dispelling these rumors when he accepted a retirement sinecure as a television analyst for Russia Today, a Kremlin-financed Russian propaganda operation. The extent and nature of Flynn's relationship with the Kremlin is part of what led Trump to place Flynn in a role where he would not face Senate confirmation, given the overwhelming likelihood that even the Republican-led Senate would refuse to confirm him to any cabinet post.
Flynn has continued to be a source of controversy during the transition effort, as his son, Michael Flynn Jr., was forced out of the transition effort due to a series of controversial tweets.