Incoming US national security advisor, retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, held at least five phone calls with Russia's ambassador to Washington on the day the United States imposed sanctions against Moscow for its interference in the US presidential election, sources familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The calls occurred in the short time frame between the Russian embassy was told about US sanctions and the official announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he had decided against reprisals, said the sources.
While not entirely unusual, the calls raised fresh questions about contacts between Trump's advisers and Russian official.
On December 29, US President Barack Obama announced the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats suspected of being spies and imposed sanctions on two Russian intelligence agencies over their involvement in hacking US political groups.
Trump transition spokesman Sean Spicer said Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak spoke on the phone around the time of the sanctions announcement, but Spicer said the conversation happened a day earlier, on December 28.
“The call centered around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in, and they exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and schedule that call,” Spicer told reporters Friday. “That was it, plain and simple.”
"On Christmas day, General Flynn reached out to the ambassador, sent him a text that said, 'I want to wish you a merry Christmas and a happy New Year, I look forward to touching base and working with you and I wish you all the best,'" Spicer said.
"The ambassador texted him back wishing him a Merry Christmas as well. And then subsequently on the 28th of December said, 'I’d like to give you a call, may I?' He then took that call on the 28th," Spicer added.
An unnamed Trump official confirmed one phone conversation between the two men on December 29, adding it was their understanding that the two men did not discuss the sanctions.
The three sources stressed to Reuters that they did not know who initiated the five calls between Flynn and Kislyak, nor did they know the contents of the conversations.
Not 'necessarily inappropriate'
Asked Friday afternoon if he was bothered by Flynn's talks with the Russian representative, President Barack Obama's spokesman said it "depends on what he said."
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest stressed he "obviously" has "zero insight" into what was communicated.
"As a general matter, on principle, you can imagine why these kinds of interactions may take place," he said, emphasizing that the content of the discussion would determine "whether we would have significant objections."
'"I'm also not prepared to say it was entirely appropriate without knowing the content of their conversations," he said.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner also agreed with the sentiment that such calls are not "necessarily inappropriate".
"This building doesn’t see anything necessarily inappropriate about contact between members of the incoming administration and foreign officials," Toner said.
The timing of the calls however does raise questions about whether Flynn had given Kislyak any assurances to calm Russian anger over the US moves.
Any such conversation could possibly be in violation of the Logan Act of 1799.
The law bars unauthorized US citizens from negotiating with foreign governments with which the United States has disputes to prevent the undermining of official US positions.
Alexey Mosin, a spokesman for the Russian embassy in Washington, declined to comment on the content of the calls, saying "the Embassy does not comment on multiple contacts, which are carried out on a daily basis with local interlocutors."
Trump himself criticized the sanctions immediately after they got announced, and repeatedly called for improved relations with Moscow in the past.
Trump has often refused to criticize Putin, but did acknowledge in a Wednesday press conference that Russia was behind US election hacking.
It is not clear how US officials became aware of the contacts between Flynn and Kislyak, but US monitoring of Russian officials’ communication within the US is known to be commonplace.