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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Spins Flynn Facts

President Donald Trump has been spinning the facts about Michael Flynn’s resignation Feb. 14 as national security advisor:

  • A day after Flynn’s resignation, Trump claimed Flynn was “treated very, very unfairly” by the “fake media.” In fact, the White House confirmed media reports that Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador about U.S. sanctions, precipitating his resignation, so the media reports were accurate.
  • On Feb. 10, a day after the news broke that Flynn had spoken to Russia about the sanctions, Trump said he wasn’t aware of the reports. But the White House since has confirmed that Trump knew for “a few weeks” that Flynn discussed sanctions with Russia.

The Washington Post broke the story late on Feb. 9 that Flynn “privately discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with that country’s ambassador to the United States during the month before President Trump took office, contrary to public assertions by Trump officials,” citing unnamed current and former officials.

In particular, the Post report contradicted then Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who said on CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that he was assured by Flynn that sanctions were not discussed when Flynn called Sergey Kislyak in late December. The two men talked shortly after President Barack Obama imposed sanctions against Russia for interfering in the 2016 presidential election — about three weeks before Trump took office on Jan. 20.

Pence, Jan. 15:  I talked to General Flynn about that conversation and actually it was initiated when on Christmas Day he had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airplane crash that took place. It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation. They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.

Flynn acknowledged in his Feb. 14 resignation letter that he misled Pence. “I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador,” Flynn wrote.

As of Feb. 15, Trump had said little about Flynn’s resignation and the events leading up to it, but some of what he has said has not been accurate.

At a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump was asked about the impact of Flynn’s resignation on the Iran nuclear agreement signed by Obama. Trump criticized the “fake media” for treating Flynn “very, very unfairly.”

Trump, Feb. 15: General Flynn is a wonderful man. I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media — as I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.

The characterization of the media’s handling of the Flynn saga as “fake” is, well, fake.

In its Feb. 9 story, the Post reported that Flynn, in an interview on Feb. 8, initially denied that he spoke with Kislyak about the U.S. sanctions. The Post story went on to say, “On Thursday [Feb. 9], Flynn, through his spokesman, backed away from the denial. The spokesman said Flynn ‘indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.'”

Flynn’s resignation letter did not mention that he spoke with Kislyak about sanctions. But White House spokesman Sean Spicer, at his daily briefing on Feb. 14, did confirm that the two men spoke about the sanctions. Asked to confirm that “the sanctions that Flynn was discussing were the sanctions for the election hacking,” Spicer replied, “Right.”

So, not only were the media reports accurate, but they proved Pence and others in the administration provided inaccurate information about the phone call.

Trump also gave an inaccurate — or at the very least incomplete — answer when he was first asked on Feb. 10 about reports that Flynn spoke with Kislyak about sanctions. At the time, Trump said he “didn’t know about it.” But we now know that he knew about it for weeks.

Here is what happened: After the Post story broke late Feb. 9, other news outlets quickly followed with stories of their own on Feb. 9 and Feb. 10. In the late afternoon on Feb. 10, Trump was asked aboard Air Force One about the news reports on Flynn.

Reporter, Feb. 10: What do you think of reports that General Flynn had conversations with the Russians about the sanctions before you were sworn in?

Trump: I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it. What report is that?

At that point, another reporter jumped in to summarize what the Washington Post was reporting, and Trump said, “I haven’t seen that. I’ll look at that.”

Trump denied knowing anything about Flynn discussing sanctions with the Russian ambassador when, in fact, he did. How do we know? At the Feb. 14 White House briefing, Spicer told reporters that the White House had known “for a few weeks” — since January — that Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador about sanctions.

Spicer, Feb. 14: We’ve been reviewing and evaluating this issue with respect to General Flynn on a daily basis for a few weeks, trying to ascertain the truth.

When pressed if Trump was not being truthful on Feb. 10, Spicer said Trump gave an accurate answer because the president was not aware of the Post story.

Spicer, Feb. 14: What he was asked specifically is was he aware of a Washington Post story. He hadn’t seen that at the time. Of course, he was involved; I just said that he was aware of the situation right after the White House counsel informed him back in January.

Now, Trump may or may not have read the Post story. We don’t know. But the first question was about “reports” — not just the Post report — and the Flynn story had been widely reported by the afternoon of Feb. 10. Even if the president wasn’t aware of any of the reports, Trump clearly knew more than he was letting on.

We appreciate that the White House was trying to ascertain the truth, and we know that it is sometimes a challenge to get the facts right. But it is made all the more difficult when the president and his top aides give inaccurate information or spin the facts.