Washington (AFP) - US National Security Advisor Michael Flynn discussed the issue of US sanctions with Russia's ambassador weeks before Donald Trump was sworn in as president, contrary to the senior aide's assertions, US media reported Friday.
The talks took place in December just as then-president Barack Obama was ordering new actions against Russia over its alleged interference in the US election.
The Washington Post, which first reported the talks, said some senior US officials interpreted Flynn's communications with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak as an inappropriate and possible illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from sanctions.
The Post cited unnamed current and former officials familiar with reports by US intelligence and law enforcement agencies that routinely monitor the communications of Russian diplomats.
The reports include Flynn's discussions with Kislyak around the time of Obama's December 30 announcement of new sanctions on Russia and the expulsion of 35 suspected Russian intelligence agents.
The Post's sources said Flynn made "explicit" references to the election-related sanctions, and two sources said that he urged Russia not to overreact to Obama's move, suggesting that the two sides could revisit the issue after Trump was sworn in as president on January 20.
The New York Times published a similar account of the retired lieutenant general's discussions with Kislyak, also citing current and former US officials.
US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian president Vladimir Putin directed a campaign to interfere with US elections, specifically to support Trump, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation is examining ties between members of Trump's presidential campaign team and Moscow.
A US law, the Logan Act, forbids private citizens from negotiating state affairs with foreign governments. But no one has ever been prosecuted under the measure.
- Democrats: Flynn should be fired -
Flynn and Vice President Mike Pence both denied in January that the calls with Kislyak concerned US sanctions on Russia, and Flynn told the Post in an interview Wednesday that no mention of sanctions was made in his communications.
On Thursday, however, a spokesman for Flynn walked back the national security advisor's statements, telling the Post and the Times that "while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn't be certain that the topic never came up."
Meanwhile on Friday an administration spokesman noted that "the vice president's comments were based on his conversation with General Flynn."
Russia's embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.
The reports sparked strong criticism from Democrats in Congress. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, urged Trump to fire Flynn.
"The allegation that general Flynn, while president Obama was still in office, secretly discussed with Russia's ambassador ways to undermine the sanctions levied against Russia for its interference in the Presidential election on Donald Trump's behalf, raises serious questions of legality and fitness for office," Schiff said in a statement.
Engel added: "the president must relieve General Flynn immediately."
Flynn's choice as Trump's top national security advisor has been controversial. Many in the US intelligence community say he is ill-suited for the crucial job.
The retired three-star general was fired as head of the Defense Intelligence Agency after two years for alleged poor management.
He sees militant Islam as the biggest threat to global stability, and has said that Washington and Moscow need to cooperate on the issue.