National Security Adviser Michael Flynn apologizes to Vice President Pence over Russia controversy
WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump is "evaluating the situation" regarding his embattled national security adviser Michael Flynn's conversations with Russia's ambassador to the U.S., the White House said Monday, deepening the uncertainty surrounding Flynn's future in the new administration.
Flynn apologized privately for the controversy to Vice President Mike Pence, according to a White House official. Pence, relying on information from Flynn, publicly vouched that the retired Army lieutenant general did not discuss U.S. sanctions against Russia in calls with the Russia late last year. Flynn has since told the White House that sanctions may have come up.
Trump, who comments on a steady stream of issues on his Twitter feed, has been conspicuously silent about the matter since The Washington Post reported last week that Flynn had discussed sanctions with the Russian envoy. A U.S. official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, as well as at other times during the transition.
Earlier Monday, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Trump had "full confidence" in Flynn, though her assertions were not backed up by other senior Trump aides.
Flynn sat in the front row of Trump's news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier Monday. But the president did not receive a question about Flynn's future from a pair of reporters, and he ignored journalists' shouted follow-up inquiries as he left the room.
Trump has told associates he is troubled by the situation, but he has not said whether he plans to ask Flynn to step down, according to a person who spoke with him recently. Flynn was a loyal Trump supporter during the campaign, but he is viewed skeptically by some in the administration's national security circles, in part because of his ties to Russia.
In 2015, Flynn was paid to attend a gala dinner for Russia Today, a Kremlin-backed television station, and sat next to Russian President Vladimir Putin during the event.
Flynn spoke with the vice president about the matter twice on Friday, according to an administration official. The official said Pence was relying on information from Flynn when he went on television and denied that sanctions were discussed with Kislyak.
Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said that if Pence were misled, "I can't imagine he would have trust in Gen. Flynn going forward." She said it would also be "troubling" if Pence had been negotiating with a foreign government before taking office.
House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi called for Flynn to be fired, saying he "cannot be trusted to put Putin before America."
It's illegal for private citizens to conduct U.S. diplomacy. Flynn's conversations also raise questions about Trump's friendly posture toward Russia after U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Moscow hacked Democratic emails during the election.
The controversy surrounding Flynn comes as the young administration grapples with a series of national security challenges, including North Korea's reported ballistic missile launch. The president, who was joined at his Mar-a-Lago estate by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe over the weekend, voiced solidarity with Japan.
The White House is also dealing with fallout from the rocky rollout of Trump's immigration executive order, which has been blocked by the courts. The order was intended to suspend the nation's refugee program and bar citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States.
Flynn's contacts with Kislyak coincided with the Obama administration slapping penalties on Russia for election-related hacking. U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that Russia hacked Democratic groups to help Trump win the election.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who led Trump's transition planning before the election, said Flynn would have to explain his conflicting statements about his conversations with Kislyak to Trump and Pence.
"Gen. Flynn has said up to this point that he had not said anything like that to the Russian ambassador. I think now he's saying that he doesn't remember whether he did or not," Christie said on CNN. "So, that's a conversation he is going to need to have with the president and the vice president to clear that up, so that the White House can make sure that they are completely accurate about what went on."
Associated Press writer Jonathan Lemire in New York and Jill Colvin in Washington contributed to this report.