The Trump administration has a problem telling the truth about Russia. First it was National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who falsely denied having discussed sanctions in a Dec. 29 phone call with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Then it was Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who falsely denied having any contact with the Russian government during the 2016 campaign. Now it’s Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, who concealed Flynn’s presence at a December meeting with Kislyak.
The meeting between Flynn and Kislyak, revealed Thursday by the New York Times, took place at Trump Tower in December, some time before the two events of Dec. 29: President Obama issuing sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 election and Flynn assuring Kislyak that Trump would review the sanctions. The White House, after initially keeping the Trump Tower meeting secret, now says it was just a general discussion about establishing a “line of communication.” That assurance can hardly be trusted.
The White House and the Trump transition team have misled us about this meeting for more than two months. Kushner and Flynn met with numerous ambassadors during the transition. South Korea’s ambassador was photographed with Flynn in the lobby of Trump Tower. Kellyanne Conway, then Trump’s chief communications strategist, brought Israel’s ambassador out of an elevator to talk to the press. Kushner’s meetings with ambassadors from China and Canada were also widely reported. But not the meeting with Kislyak. Despite daily stakeouts in the lobby, the press corps never saw him.
On Jan. 13, in a media conference call, Arlette Saenz of ABC News asked Sean Spicer, the incoming White House press secretary, about Flynn’s contacts with Kislyak. Alluding to a column by David Ignatius, she told Spicer: “The Washington Post has reported that Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador several times. Can you confirm that they have spoken in fact? [And] if they did in fact speak, what did he communicate in those conversations?” Spicer replied with a prepared timeline. He said Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak had begun with a text message on Dec. 25 and ended with a phone call on Dec. 28. “That was it, plain and simple,” Spicer told the reporters.
Later that day, Spicer corrected the latter date, noting that the last phone call had occurred on Dec. 29. But he never told reporters that Flynn and Kislyak had talked before Dec. 25 or that they had met in person. The omission of the meeting was bad enough, but the timeline also seems misleading. Although the Times has said only that the meeting took place “as the Obama White House was preparing to sanction Russia,” presumably—if its purpose was to establish a line of communication—it would have occurred before Flynn and Kislyak exchanged texts on Dec. 25.
Spicer’s account produced numerous misleading reports. “The contact began, Spicer said, on Christmas Day, with Flynn and Kislyak exchanging holiday greetings via text message,” said NBC News. The Wall Street Journal, citing Spicer, told readers that Dec. 29 “wasn’t the first time the incoming national security adviser and the Russian diplomat communicated. Gen. Flynn sent Mr. Kislyak a holiday-greeting text message on Dec. 25.” The Times reported that according to Spicer, Flynn “had initially reached out to Mr. Kislyak via text message on Christmas Day.” These accounts omitted the Trump Tower meeting, which Kushner knew about. Yet the White House didn’t correct them.
On Jan. 15, Reince Priebus, the incoming White House chief of staff, repeated on Meet the Press that the Flynn-Kislyak conversations had begun with a text message on Dec. 25. Vice President Pence, appearing on Face the Nation, went further:
Pence: What I can confirm, having spoken to him [Flynn] about it, is that those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions.
John Dickerson: But that still leaves open the possibility that there might have been other conversations about the sanctions.
Pence: I don’t believe there were more conversations.
Pence now claims that when he gave that interview, he didn’t know his statements about Flynn were false. But Kushner knew, because he was at the December meeting. Still, the White House said nothing.
On Jan. 23, at a White House briefing, Hallie Jackson of NBC News asked Spicer about reports of “multiple interactions between National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and a Russian ambassador.” Spicer told her that “there have been a total of two calls with the ambassador and Gen. Flynn”—one on Dec. 29 and another on Jan. 20. Jackson followed up: “Any other conversations between Gen. Flynn and Russian members of the government?” Spicer replied: “Not that I’m aware of.” The briefing was aired on cable news and written up in every major newspaper. Still, Kushner said nothing.
On Jan. 26, based on surveillance intercepts of Kislyak, Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned the White House that Flynn had misled Pence and others about the contents of the Dec. 29 phone call. Priebus says the White House responded to this alert by “deposing Michael Flynn and figuring out what he knew.” Spicer claims that internally there was an “exhaustive and extensive questioning of Gen. Flynn on several occasions.” Kushner—who oversaw national security appointments, supervised Flynn, talked with him daily, accompanied him at intelligence briefings, and ultimately participated in the decision to oust him—must have been involved in this process. Yet somehow, at the end of it, the White House still didn’t divulge Flynn’s meeting with Kislyak.
Eventually, the New Yorker got wind of a meeting between Kislyak and Kushner. According to staff writer Evan Osnos: “When we asked the White House about it, the press office replied only that a ‘brief meeting took place during the transition period. The two spoke about potentially establishing a more open line of communication in the future.’ ” It’s inconceivable that Kushner wasn’t looped in on this query. Yet he allowed the White House to issue a statement—“The two spoke”—that airbrushed Flynn out of the meeting. The New Yorker’s story, published Feb. 24, reported only that Kislyak had met with Kushner. Still, Kushner said nothing.
Throughout this period, from Jan. 13 to Wednesday, no story was bigger than the Flynn-Kislyak relationship. Flynn misled the White House about their contacts, and the White House misled the public. It took intervention from the intelligence community to expose the deception. Nevertheless, the White House insisted it was innocent. Trump’s aides told us they had interrogated Flynn. They swore they had told us everything they knew.
But they hadn’t. On Thursday, the Washington Post reported that Sessions, contrary to his testimony, had met with Kislyak in September. And now we know, thanks to the New Yorker and the Times, that Flynn met with Kislyak in December. The White House didn’t volunteer this disclosure. It confirmed Flynn’s presence only “in response to questions from a New York Times reporter.”
Flynn, Sessions, Kushner. Manafort, Page, Trump. This White House never tells the truth. No more evasions and cover-ups. No more promises of internal depositions or Republican-run inquiries. The whole mess has to be put before an independent body, with subpoena power and all means of investigation. That’s the only way we’ll find out what happened.