The FBI is investigating a conversation between former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak wherein they discussed establishing a back channel for communication between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin that would circumvent the monitoring of U.S. national security officials.
On May 18, intelligence officials disclosed that members of the Trump campaign had 18 separate instances of communication with Russian officials between April through November 2016. The contacts had been unearthed by the U.S. intelligence community and had not been disclosed by the Trump administration, Reuters reports.
Sources familiar with the communications asserted that they did not indicate collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence to subvert the 2016 presidential election, but instead consisted of discussions to strengthen relations between a potential Trump administration and Russia.
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"It's rare to have that many phone calls to foreign officials, especially to a country we consider an adversary or a hostile power," said former deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage of the Bush administration.
In November 2016, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Russian media that their government had ongoing communications with the Trump campaign during the presidential race.
"There were contacts," Ryabkov said. "We are doing this and have been doing this during the election campaign... Obviously, we know most of the people from his (Trump's) entourage. Those people have always been in the limelight in the United States and have occupied high-ranking positions."
While the Trump campaign associates who made 12 of the 18 communications with Russian officials remain masked, or classified for privacy reasons, sources disclosed that the remaining six communications were between Kislyak and several Trump advisers, including Flynn.
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Following Trump's election, Flynn and Kislyak heightened the pace of their communications. Their discussions included plans to create a back channel for Trump and Putin to communicate. They had agreed that the channel would have to bypass the U.S. national security community, reportedly because they believed those officials would hinder the president's agenda to improve relations with Russia.
On April 3, European and Arab officials disclosed that Erik Prince, brother of Secretary of State Betsy DeVos and founder of the controversial Blackwater security firm, met with a Russian official to discuss opening up a back channel line of communication between Trump and the Russian government. The meeting was arranged by the United Arab Emirates and took place in the Seychelles islands, The Washington Post reports.
A Prince spokesman denied that the meeting was intended to establish a back channel of communication, stating "The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump."
Flynn has been the center of controversy for the Trump administration. In December 2016, the Department of Justice (DOJ) opened up an investigation into Flynn for his lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government despite not registering as a foreign agent. On Jan. 4, Flynn told the Trump transition team that he was under federal investigation, The New York Times reports.
On Jan. 26, former acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned White House Counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn had not been forthcoming to the White House about his contacts with Kislyak. Yates added that the DOJ had reason to believe that Flynn was vulnerable to blackmail from the Russian government, according to CNN.
On Feb. 13, Flynn was finally dismissed from his position as national security adviser after reports revealed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the substance of his communications with Kislyak in December 2016. Flynn had discussed easing U.S. sanctions against Russia with the ambassador.
On Feb. 14, Trump allegedly asked former FBI director James Comey during a private meeting to drop the bureau's investigation into Flynn. Comey recounted the conversation in an FBI memo.
On May 17, the DOJ appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to head the investigation into Russia's alleged meddling during the 2016 presidential election. Meanwhile, the House Intelligence Committee requested that the FBI submit all of Comey's memos detailing his conversations with the president, The Hill reports.
Sources close to Trump have asserted that it was difficult for him to fire Flynn.
"They got so close during the campaign," an anonymous White House official told The Atlantic. The official added "General Flynn was the person closest to [Trump] on national-security matters."