US President Donald Trump knew for weeks that national security adviser Michael Flynn had misled the White House about his contacts with Russia but did not immediately force him out, an administration spokesman said.
Trump was informed in late January that Flynn had not told Vice President Mike Pence the whole truth about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, Reuters quoted White House spokesman Sean Spicer as saying on Tuesday.
Flynn quit on Monday after Trump asked for his resignation, Spicer said. “The issue pure and simple came down to a matter of trust,” Spicer told reporters.
US lawmakers, including some leading Republicans, called for a deeper inquiry into not just Flynn’s actions but broader White House ties to Russia.
Trump has long said that he would like improved relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Representative Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee, said Trump only moved against Flynn because of media attention to the issue, and not because of concern at any wrongdoing by the former lieutenant general.
“The reason they lost faith or trust in General Flynn only last night when they knew for weeks that he had been lying was that it became public,” Schiff told MSNBC.
A timeline of events outlined by Spicer and a US official showed that Trump had known for weeks about Flynn misleading the vice president.
Trump, a former reality TV star whose catchphrase was “You’re fired!”, has often boasted of his eagerness to get rid of subordinates, Reuters said.
But he was not quick to fire Flynn, a strong advocate of a better relations with Russia and a hard line against Islamist militants, according to the news agency.
The Justice Department warned the White House in late January that Flynn had misled Pence by denying to him that he had discussed US sanctions on Russia with Ambassador Sergei Kislyak, a potentially illegal act, a US official said.
Flynn did talk about sanctions with the diplomat, whose calls were recorded by US intelligence officials, the official said.
But Pence went on television in mid-January and denied that Flynn had discussed sanctions.
Spicer stressed that the administration believed there was no legal problem with Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak, but rather an issue over the president’s trust in his adviser.
He said the Justice Department sought to notify the White House counsel on Jan. 26 about the discrepancies in Flynn’s accounts.
Flynn’s conversations with the ambassador took place around the time that then-President Barack Obama imposed sanctions on Russia, charging that Moscow had used cyber attacks to try to influence the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor.
A US official familiar with the transcripts of the calls with the ambassador said Flynn indicated that if Russia did not retaliate in kind for Obama’s Dec. 29 order expelling 35 Russian suspected spies and sanctioning Russian spy agencies, that could smooth the way toward a broader discussion of improving US-Russian relations once Trump took power.
Flynn’s discussions with the Russian diplomat could potentially have been in violation of a law known as the Logan Act, banning private citizens from negotiating with foreign governments about disputes or controversies with the United States.
However, nobody has been prosecuted in modern times under the law, which dates from 1799.
Although Flynn is almost certain not to be prosecuted under the Logan Act, he could still face legal trouble if it emerges that he violated other federal laws in his communications with the Russians, said Andrew Kent, a professor at Fordham University School of Law in New York. The Espionage Act, for example, criminalizes sharing information with foreign governments
Democrats, who do not have control of Congress, clamored for probes into Flynn, and asked how much Trump knew about his connections to Russia.
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