WASHINGTON • The White House battled to insulate Mr Donald Trump from a scandal over his top aide's contacts with Russia, as it emerged that the President was aware of the problem for weeks before acting.
With calls for an independent investigation gathering pace, the White House admitted that Mr Trump was told three weeks ago that National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have misled colleagues about his Kremlin contacts.
The retired three-star general and former head of US defence intelligence initially denied discussing sanctions strategy with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before taking office.
That may have breached US law on negotiating with foreign powers, and at the very least was a significant break with the norm that incoming administrations accept that the United States has "one government at a time".
Rise and fall of Michael Flynn
Mr Michael Flynn resigned as national security adviser after just 24 days on the job. Here is a timeline of his short tenure.
• Nov 18: Mr Donald Trump, then President-elect, offered Mr Flynn, a retired general, the post of national security adviser.
• Dec 29: Then President Barack Obama ejected dozens of suspected Russian intelligence operatives from the US, and imposed sanctions on Russia for its supposed role in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee to tip the election in Mr Trump's favour. Around the same time, Mr Flynn discussed the sanctions with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and urged Russia not to retaliate.
• Jan 15: Mr Mike Pence, the Vice-President-elect then, denied sanctions had been discussed.
• Jan 26: Soon after Federal Bureau of Investigation agents interviewed Mr Flynn, then Acting Attorney- General Sally Yates told new White House counsel Donald McGahn that Mr Flynn was vulnerable to Russian blackmail owing to the discrepancy between his public statements and what intelligence officials knew about the call. Mr Trump was told "immediately" and had Mr McGahn conduct a review. Mr McGahn concluded that nothing in the conversation had violated federal law.
• Feb 10: Mr Trump said he planned to "look into" Mr Flynn's conversation with Mr Kislyak, when asked.
• Feb 13: Mr Flynn resigned.
Mr Flynn was asked to resign on Monday, after what the White House said were weeks of internal investigations that turned up no evidence of wrongdoing, but "eroded" trust.
Agents intercepted calls and obtained phone records showing that members of Mr Trump's presidential campaign and other aides had repeated contacts with top Russian intelligence officials in the year that preceded the Nov 8 election, The New York Times reported.
After finding evidence that Russia was seeking to disrupt the election, US intelligence agencies tried to determine whether the Trump campaign was cooperating with Moscow on hacking and other related efforts, according to the paper.
However, the newspaper added, the current and former US officials it cited have not yet found evidence of such collusion.
Yesterday, the Kremlin denied the report, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying: "Don't believe newspaper reports, it is very difficult at the moment to differentiate them from falsehoods and fabrications."
Stressing that the sources quoted by The New York Times were anonymous, Mr Peskov said "the time has perhaps come for someone to speak out openly about all of this".
In a string of tweets last night, Mr Trump pointed the finger at the intelligence community for "illegally" leaking classified information to the media, calling it "un-American", while trying to distance himself from the brouhaha.
"This Russian connection nonsense is merely an attempt to cover up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign," he tweeted, referring to his rival in the presidential election.
He also targeted his predecessor, tweeting: "Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?"
In a new hardening of the US line on Russia, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said: "President Trump has made it very clear he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea".
The White House denied that Mr Trump had instructed Mr Flynn to discuss the possibility that Obama- era sanctions would be rolled back. It had painted Mr Trump's final decision as based on Mr Flynn having misled Vice-President Mike Pence. But it emerged on Tuesday that Mr Trump kept his deputy, who publicly defended Mr Flynn, in the dark for two weeks.
Republicans and Democrats in Congress have now called for an investigation into what occurred. Various committees in the Republican- controlled Congress are also looking into Russia's election-related hacking and the Trump campaign's links to Moscow.