Russian conversations intercepted by US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign indicated that Moscow saw Donald Trump associate Michael Flynn as an ally who could help influence the Republican nominee, CNN reported Saturday.
Sources told the news network that Russian officials were heard boasting of the close relationship they had developed with Flynn, who would eventually be chosen by Trump to serve as his national security adviser — but who was fired from the post only weeks into the new administration’s term.
An Obama administration official told CNN “This was a five-alarm fire from early on, the way the Russians were talking about him.”
It was recently reported that Barack Obama personally warned Trump against naming Flynn as national security adviser, just two days after the November 8 election.
On May 8 former acting attorney general Sally Yates testified to the Senate Judiciary Committee that the White House was warned in January that Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
Yates confirmed reports that she had told the White House, six days into Trump’s administration, that Flynn, a former military intelligence chief, had not been honest with Vice President Mike Pence about his discussions with the Russian ambassador to Washington, leaving him vulnerable to leverage from Moscow.
It nevertheless took 18 days before the president, pressed by Pence and others, dismissed the retired army lieutenant general, who had advised him on security issues throughout the 2016 presidential campaign.
“We believed that General Flynn was compromised with respect to the Russians,” Yates told the hearing in her first public comments on the scandal which has dogged the opening months of Trump’s presidency. “This was a problem because not only did we believe that the Russians knew this but that they likely had proof of this information. And that created a compromise situation, a situation where the national security adviser essentially could be blackmailed by the Russians.”
Reports Friday said Trump told Russian diplomats last week his firing of “nut job” James Comey had eased the pressure on him, even as the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation had moved into the White House.
White House hopes that Trump could leave scandalous allegations at home were crushed in a one-two punch of revelations that landed shortly after his departure. A Washington Post report, citing anonymous sources familiar with the matter, said a senior Trump adviser is now considered a “person of interest” in the law enforcement investigation into whether Trump’s campaign associates coordinated with Russia in an effort to sway the 2016 election.
And The New York Times reported that the president had told Russian officials he felt the dismissal of his FBI director had relieved “great pressure” on him. The White House has said the firing was unrelated to the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Late Friday, the Senate intelligence committee announced that Comey had agreed to testify at an open hearing at an undetermined date after Memorial Day.
Comey will certainly be asked about encounters that precipitated his firing, including a January dinner in which, Comey has told associates, Trump asked for his loyalty. In the Oval Office weeks later, Comey told associates, the president asked him to shut down an investigation into Flynn.
Comey is known to produce memos documenting especially sensitive or unsettling encounters, such as after the February meeting.
Comey turned down an invitation to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The new headlines were a fresh indication that Trump would not be able to change the subject from what appears to be an intensifying investigation reaching toward the president and his inner circle.
The White House repeated its assertion that a “thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.” It did not deny the Times report that Trump was critical of Comey to the Russians the day after he fired him.
The Times reported Trump noted the Russia investigation as he told Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak of his decision to fire Comey.
“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” the Times reported that Trump said during the May 10 meeting. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
White House spokesman Sean Spicer called the president’s rhetoric part of his deal-making.
“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously the termination of Comey would not have ended it. Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”
As for the separate report of a “person of interest” under investigation, the Post said the senior White House adviser “under scrutiny” is someone close to the president but did not name the person.
Among Trump’s senior White House advisers are several former campaign officials, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller and Kellyanne Conway. In March, Kushner volunteered to answer lawmakers’ questions about meetings he had with Russian officials during the transition.
Earlier this week, the Justice Department appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller to take over the federal investigation in an effort to re-establish independence from the White House.
The appointment of Mueller as special counsel has drawn generally favorable comments from Democrats and from some Republicans as well.
Trump has reacted furiously to the appointment of a special counsel, a prosecutor with wide authority to investigate Russia’s interference and other potential crimes uncovered. However, at a combative news conference Thursday, he fell short in trying to resolve questions about investigations into his campaign and his first four months in office.
Asked point-blank if he’d done anything that might merit prosecution or even impeachment, Trump said no — and then added of the lingering allegations and questions: “I think it’s totally ridiculous. Everybody thinks so.”