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Russia stands by Michael Flynn as the White House goes silent

NEW YORK, NY – NOVEMBER 29: Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for National Security Advisor, walks through the lobby at Trump Tower. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

By Meg Wagner

Kremlin denies any illegal talks

The Kremlin on Monday again denied accusations that President Donald Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn discussed sanctions with Russia’s ambassador before the inauguration, but White House officials are apparently distancing themselves from the embattled general.

The Monday denial from Russian government officials — which followed a similar Friday rebuttal — comes a day after a Trump administration official refused to say whether the president stands by Flynn, a retired United States Army lieutenant general who may have broken an obscure law forbidding private citizens from conducting diplomatic affairs.

“That’s a question for the president,” Stephen Miller, Trump’s top policy advisor said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday morning.

Miller sidestepped questions about the allegations on several other Sunday morning TV shows, telling ABC News that he didn’t have “any news to make” regarding the case, and telling CNN that he doesn’t have “any information one way or another.”

The silence marks a change in tone for the administration, which initially fiercely defended the general.

On Friday, aides for Vice President Mike Pence, who said during a Jan. 15 interview that Flynn never discussed sanctions with Russia, insisted that he’d made those comments after Flynn assured him that was the case.

But despite waning support from the White House, Flynn has no plans to resign amid the controversy. He doesn’t believe he will be fired over it, a Trump administration official told CNN.

‘No,’ and then ‘no recollection’

Questions about the call have swirled since January, when the Washington Post reported Flynn spoke on Dec. 28 to Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. That was the same day that then-President Barack Obama announced new measures against Russia as retaliation for alleged interference in the November presidential election, including the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S.

White House officials were at first quick to defend Flynn, who denied chatting about sanctions with the Russian diplomat.

Pence insisted on Jan. 15 that Flynn was just establishing a line of communication with Kislyak — “exactly what the incoming national security adviser should do,” he said — and said timing of the call was “strictly coincidental.”

“They did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia,” he said.

The controversy boiled up again last week when a new Washington Post report, citing several unnamed current and former U.S. officials, claimed that Flynn and Kislyak did, in fact, talk about sanctions.

On Thursday, Flynn backed down from his previous stern denial — just a day after he twice said “no” when asked if he discussed the sanctions. His spokesman said Flynn “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.”

Did Flynn break an obscure law?

Flynn’s problems are rooted in the Logan Act, a 1799 statute that forbids private citizens from meddling in diplomatic affairs. If Flynn talked about sanctions with Kislyak before the inauguration — and before he was a White House official — he may have broken the law.

But prosecuting Flynn with the act would be unprecedented. No one has ever faced charges in the statute’s 218-year history.

The FBI’s January investigation of Flynn’s call with Kislyak found no evidence of illegal activity. Agency officials said last week that they will continue to probe the case amid the renewed allegations.

Meanwhile, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) has asked the FBI to brief the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee about the probe.

But some Democrats have called for swifter, more forceful action.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) demanded Flynn be suspended amid the investigation, and Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked that the advisor temporarily resign.

Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S.’s ambassador to Russia between 2012 and 2014, called for a “911-like commission” into Flynn after the allegations plus a photo of him sitting next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a 2015 dinner circulated.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Many Pelosi (D-Calif.) on Monday demanded the White House fire Flynn.

“Michael Flynn has proven he cannot be trusted to serve America’s best interests and national security instead of Russia’s. #FireFlynn,” she tweeted.

“This Administration has exhausted its excuses. Vladimir Putin’s grip on President Trump must be investigated, exposed and broken. National security demands that General Flynn be fired immediately,” she added in a statement.

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