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Politics & Government

National Security Adviser Flynn Reportedly Talked With Russian Ambassador

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Washington Post reports that Michael Flynn, Donald Trump's national security adviser, did discuss sanctions against Russia with the Russian ambassador before President Trump's inauguration. At first, Mr. Flynn had denied this story, then a spokesman said he couldn't be certain the topic didn't come up. Sanctions were imposed on Russia by President Obama in December after U.S. intelligence reports said that Russia had meddled in the 2016 election. Greg Miller is the national security correspondent for The Washington Post. He's been reporting this story. Mr. Miller, thanks so much for being with us.

GREG MILLER: Happy to do it.

SIMON: Latest piece of news - you report that General Flynn spoke to the vice president, Mike Pence, to try and contain the reaction to the ongoing story.

MILLER: Yeah. They appear to have had at least two conversations yesterday, one in person and then one by phone. And I think this is - you're right - this is part of an effort by Flynn to shore up his standing in the White House and, in particular, his strange relationship with the vice president.

SIMON: I'm sure a lot of people are wondering - how do you know this? I mean, wasn't that a private conversation ostensibly?

MILLER: Well, this was (laughter) - as you - if you saw the story, it is attributed to administration officials, and I can only tell you that these were officials who would have had direct knowledge of these conversations.

SIMON: So one of the other person on the phone?

MILLER: I can't (laughter) - I can't go that far with you. I'm sorry. I mean, we have to honor the agreements we have with our sources who describe some of this to us.

SIMON: Yeah. The sequence of events that made some people suspicious, even from the outside, of - President Obama imposed sanctions and expelled from Russian diplomats from the U.S. after these revelations, then Michael Flynn speaks with Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. And 24 hours later, Vladimir Putin says he won't expel U.S. diplomats from Russia.

MILLER: Right. And that was a pretty astonishing development. In the history of U.S.-Russia or U.S.-Soviet relationships, there's almost always retaliation. In this case, Putin doesn't. He just almost extends an olive branch. And that caught everybody by surprise to such a degree that officials across the intelligence community and senior national security jobs are looking for clues as to - why did this happen? And that's when they start to really scrutinize Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador.

SIMON: Is there something potentially illegal if General Flynn did let the word sanctions cross his lips?

MILLER: Absolutely. The answer is complicated, though, because, yes, there is a law that is - that bars any unauthorized person negotiating with a foreign government, especially in a case of a conflict between the United States and that government. The trouble is it is a law that dates back to 1799 and has never been prosecuted in more than 200 years.

SIMON: Well, and it's a little bit foggy as laws go, isn't it. I mean, what constitutes - short of a declaration of war, what constitutes an enemy?

MILLER: And what - you know, what sort of transaction would trigger this law? Without any case history, authorities at the FBI really don't have any map for how to bring a case of this nature. And doing so would probably chill real conversations - appropriate conversations - between U.S. - between Americans and U.S. officials and foreign diplomats.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, this opens this. I mean, General Flynn has had a relationship with Russian officials in the military and in the Russian media, for that matter. Does he have to mention sanctions for them to know he knows how to look at things from our viewpoint?

MILLER: Yeah. I mean, you're - that's a good point. I mean, you can - it's easy to think that Russia would say - would have known that this Trump administration, once it's in office, is going to re-examine a lot of these policies. And it may not have to worry about this, may not have to secure an explicit promise that it's going to do so from Mike Flynn on December 29.

SIMON: In the 30 seconds we have left, Mr. Miller, why go after this story? What's so important to the interests of the United States about this?

MILLER: One - because it undermines U.S. policy. If Flynn did this, he was undermining our existing government at the time. And two - really significantly, this White House has denied it categorically, repeatedly, and those denials were not true.

SIMON: Greg Miller, a national security correspondent who's with The Washington Post, thanks so much for being with us, sir.

MILLER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.