Trump's nominee for Singapore ambassador contradicted herself on Russia contacts, testimony shows

A file photo of K.T. McFarland at a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 20, 2017.
A file photo of K.T. McFarland at a confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, on July 20, 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - A leading Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee questioned on Monday (Dec 4) whether a high-ranking official in Mr Donald Trump's transition team had been deceptive over the summer about her knowledge of discussions between Michael Flynn, the former national security adviser, and a former Russian ambassador.

Ms K.T. McFarland served on the presidential transition team before becoming the White House deputy national security adviser.

In July, she was questioned in writing by Senator Cory Booker, a New Jersey Democrat, on whether she had ever spoken to Flynn about his contacts with Mr Sergey Kislyak, who was then the Russian ambassador to Washington, before Mr Trump took office.

"I am not aware of any of the issues or events described above," Ms McFarland wrote in response, sidestepping a direct answer to the question.

An e-mail exchange obtained by The New York Times indicates that Ms McFarland was aware at the time of a crucial Dec 29 phone call between Flynn and Mr Kislyak that was intercepted by US intelligence.

During that call, Flynn urged Moscow to respond cautiously to sanctions just imposed by the Obama administration for Russia's interference in the presidential election.

Flynn pleaded guilty on Friday to lying to FBI agents about that conversation and other interactions with Mr Kislyak.

 

He promised to cooperate with the special counsel, Mr Robert Mueller, who is investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign and obstruction of justice by Mr Trump.

If senators on the Foreign Relations Committee find that Ms McFarland was evasive in her testimony, it could complicate her nomination to become ambassador to Singapore.

Repeated attempts to reach Ms McFarland, who left her post as deputy national security adviser in May, were unsuccessful.

In his written questions to ms McFarland, submitted as part of her confirmation process, Mr Booker wrote that Flynn had been warned by another transition official that his contacts with the Russian ambassador would most likely be intercepted by US intelligence agencies.

Booker also mentioned Flynn's 2015 trip to Moscow, where he attended a dinner hosted by a Kremlin-backed news network and was seated at the head table next to President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

In his written questions, Mr Booker asked, "Did you ever discuss any of Gen Flynn's contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak directly with Gen Flynn?"

In a statement on Monday, Mr Booker said that he was concerned that Ms McFarland might have answered falsely.

"If this is the case, this is an alarming development, and another example of a pattern of deception on the part of Trump's closest associates regarding their connections and communications to Russian government officials," he said.

Court documents released on Friday, along with Flynn's guilty plea, indicate that senior members of Mr Trump's transition team were well aware of his discussions with the Russian ambassador about the Obama administration's sanctions.

Flynn talked to Mr Kislyak by phone on Dec 29, the day the sanctions took effect, and several days later.

In her e-mail to another transition official hours before the first phone call, Ms McFarland described then President Barack Obama's decision to expel 35 Russian diplomats as a last-minute attempt to discredit Mr Trump's victory, box him in diplomatically and provoke him into a potentially politically damaging statement in Russia's defence.

"Gen Flynn is talking to the Russian ambassador this evening," she wrote.

She also wrote: "If there is a tit-for-tat escalation, Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia which has just thrown USA election to him."

A White House lawyer said on Friday that Ms McFarland did not mean Russia had tipped the election, only that Democrats were portraying it that way.

Court documents state that Flynn discussed what he should tell Mr Kislyak with another transition official beforehand and briefed that person afterward.

The court documents do not identify that official, who was with other senior members of the transition team at Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. White House officials said on Friday that they believed that the official was Ms McFarland, but that information has not been confirmed.

During their follow-up call, Mr Kislyak informed Flynn that Russia would not retaliate immediately for the sanctions - a surprise to many foreign policy experts.

Flynn then briefed senior transition team members about his discussions with Mr Kislyak, the records show.

Ms McFarland worked so closely with Flynn on the transition team that her colleagues sometimes referred to her as his "brain".