The acting attorney general informed the Trump White House late last month that she believed Michael Flynn had misled senior administration officials about the nature of his communications with the Russian ambassador to the United States, and warned that the national security adviser was potentially vulnerable to Russian blackmail, current and former U.S. officials said.
The message, delivered by Sally Q. Yates and a senior career national security official to the White House counsel, was prompted by concerns that ÂFlynn, when asked about his calls and texts with the ÂRussianÂ diplomat, had told Vice ÂPresident-elect Mike Pence and others that he had not discussed the Obama administration sanctions on Russia for its interference in the 2016 election, the officials said. It is unclear what the White House counsel, Donald McGahn, did with the Âinformation.
Flynn resigned Monday night in the wake of revelations about his contacts with the Russian ambassador.
In the waning days of the Obama administration, James R. Clapper Jr., who was the director of national intelligence, and John Brennan, the CIA director at the time, shared Yatesâs concerns and concurred with her recommendation to inform the Trump White House. They feared that âFlynn had put himself in a compromising positionâ and thought that Pence had a right to know that he had been misled, according to one of the officials, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
A senior Trump administration official said before Flynnâs resignation that the White House was aware of the matter, adding that âweâve been working on this for weeks.â
The current and former officials said that although they believed that Pence was misled about the contents of Flynnâs communications with the Russian ambassador, they couldnât rule out that Flynn was acting with the knowledge of others in the transition.
The FBI, Yates, Clapper and Brennan declined to comment on the matter.
In a Feb.Â 8 interview with The Washington Post, Flynn categorically denied discussing sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, repeating public assertions made in January by top Trump officials. One day after the interview, Flynn revised his account, telling The Post through a spokesman that he âcouldnât be certain that the topic never came up.â
Two officials said a main topic of the relevant call was the sanctions. Officials also said there was no evidence that Russia had attempted to exploit the discrepancy between public statements by Trump officials and what ÂFlynn had discussed.
Flynn told The Post earlier this month that he first met Kislyak in 2013, when Flynn was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and made a trip to Moscow.
U.S. intelligence reports during the 2016 presidential campaign showed that Kislyak was in touch with Flynn, officials said. Communications between the two continued after Trumpâs victory on Nov.Â 8, according to officials with access to intelligence reports on the matter.
Kislyak, in a brief interview with The Post, confirmed having contacts with Flynn before and after the election, but he declined to say what was discussed.
For Yates and other officials, concerns about the communications peaked in the days after the Obama administration on Dec.Â 29 announced measures to punish Russia for what it said was the Kremlinâs interference in the election in an attempt to helpÂ Trump.
After the sanctions were rolled out, the Obama administration braced itself for the Russian retaliation. To the surprise of many U.S. officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Dec.Â 30 that there would be no response. Trump praised the decision on Twitter.
Intelligence analysts began to search for clues that could help explain Putinâs move. The search turned up Kislyakâs communications, which the FBI routinely monitors, and the phone call in question with Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general with years of intelligence experience.
From that call and subsequent intercepts, FBI agents wrote a secret report summarizing ÂFlynnâs discussions with Kislyak.
Yates, then the deputy attorney general, considered Flynnâs comments in the intercepted call to be âhighly significantâ and âpotentially illegal,â according to an official familiar with herÂ thinking.
Yates and other intelligence officials suspected that Flynn could be in violation of an obscure U.S. statute known as the Logan Act, which bars U.S. citizens from interfering in diplomatic disputes with another country.
At the same time, Yates and other law enforcement officials knew there was little chance of bringing against Flynn a case related to the Logan Act, a statute that has never been used in a prosecution. In addition to the legal and political hurdles, Yates and other officials were aware of an FBI investigation looking at possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia, which now included the Flynn-Kislyak communications.
Word of the calls leaked out on Jan.Â 12 in an op-ed by Post columnist David Ignatius. âWhat did Flynn say, and did it undercut U.S. sanctions?â Ignatius wrote, citing the Logan Act.
The next day, a Trump transition official told The Post, âI can tell you that during his call, sanctions were not discussed whatsoever.â
White House press secretary Sean Spicer, in a conference call with reporters on Jan.Â 13, said that the conversation between Flynn and Kislyak had âcenteredÂ on the logisticsâ of a post-inauguration call between Trump and Putin. âThat was it, plain and simple,â Spicer added.
On Jan.Â 15, Pence was asked about the phone call during an appearance on CBSâs âFace the Nation.â Citing a conversation he had with Flynn, Pence said the incoming national security adviser and Kislyak âdid not discuss anything having to do with the United Statesâ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.â
Before the Pence statement on Jan.Â 15, top Justice Department and intelligence officials had discussed whether the incoming Trump White House should be notified about the contents of the Flynn-Kislyak communications.
Penceâs statement on CBS made the issue more urgent, current and former officials said, because U.S. intelligence agencies had reason to believe that Russia was aware that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions in their December call, contrary to public statements.
The internal debate over how to handle the intelligence on Flynn and Kislyak came to a head on Jan.Â 19, Obamaâs last full day in office.
Yates, Clapper and Brennan argued for briefing the incoming administration so the new president could decide how to deal with the matter. The officials discussed options, including telling Pence, the incoming White House counsel, the incoming chief of staff or Trump himself.
FBI Director James B. Comey initially opposed notification, citing concerns that it could complicate the agencyâs Âinvestigation.
Clapper and Brennan left their positions when Trump was sworn in, but Yates stayed on as acting attorney general until Jan.Â 30, when Trump fired her for refusing to defend his executive order temporarily barring refugees and people from seven majority-Muslim countries â an action that had been challenged in court.
A turning point came after Jan.Â 23, when Spicer, in his first official media briefing, again was asked about Flynnâs communications with Kislyak. Spicer said that he had talked to Flynn about the issue âagain last night.â There was just âone call,â Spicer said. And it covered four subjects: a plane crash that claimed the lives of a Russian military choir; Christmas greetings; Russian-led talks over the Syrian civil war; and the logistics of setting up a call between Putin and Trump. Spicer said that was the extent of the conversation.
Yates again raised the issue with Comey, who now backed away from his opposition to informing the White House. Yates and the senior career national security official spoke to McGahn, the White House counsel, who didnât respond Monday to a request for comment.
Trump declined to publicly back his national security adviser after the news broke.
On Monday afternoon, Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president, said Trump had âfull confidenceâ in Flynn. Minutes later, however, Spicer delivered a contradictory statement to Âreporters.
âThe president is evaluating the situation,â Spicerâs statement read. âHeâs speaking to Vice President Pence relative to the conversation the vice president had with Gen. Flynn and also speaking to various other people about what he considers the single most important subject there is: Our national security.â
And then late Monday, Flynn resigned.
Karen DeYoung and Greg Miller contributed to this report.