Recordings of phone conversations by U.S. intelligence agencies show that President Donald Trump’s National Security Adviser Mike Flynn likely lied when he denied discussing election-related sanctions on Russia with Kremlin officials before Trump’s inauguration.
The intercepts contain disturbing revelations showing a long history of contact between Flynn and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak that began before the election and continued into the transition, with Flynn telling the Russians that Trump would revisit sanctions. Critically, these contacts persisted even after the U.S. government concluded the Kremlin engaged in a covert influence operation to put Trump in the White House.
Below is a timeline of known incidents before and after the election that reveal a troubling pattern of alignment and possible illegal conduct between Trump’s inner circle and Russian officials. But the question remains: What don’t we know?
The American people need answers, and that requires an independent, bipartisan commission to fully investigate all aspects of Russia’s operation targeting the 2016 presidential election.
April 27, 2016: Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak is seated in the front row as then-GOP candidate Donald Trump delivers his first major foreign policy speech.
May 18, 2016: Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reports that the U.S. intelligence community has evidence of foreign spy services attempting to hack digital networks used by U.S. presidential campaigns, including the Democratic National Committee, or DNC, and the Democratical Congressional Campaign Committee, or DCCC.
June 14, 2016: The Washington Post reports that Russian hackers have penetrated DNC databases and gained access to opposition research on Donald Trump, as well as all internal email and chat traffic.
June 15, 2016:
- A day after The Washington Post breaks the news that the DNC has been hacked, allegedly by Russian spies, Trump’s team issues a statement: “We believe it was the DNC that did the ‘hacking’ as a way to distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader.”
- A hacker calling himself Guccifer 2.0 says he gave the hacked emails to WikiLeaks and published some himself.
July 11–15, 2016: The Trump campaign successfully lobbies the Republican National Committee, or RNC, to drop anti-Russia language in the party platform and water down language supporting Ukraine.
July 22, 2016: WikiLeaks begins publishing the first in a series of thousands of stolen DNC emails.
July 25, 2016: The FBI announces an investigation into the DNC hack.
July 26, 2016: American intelligence officials tell the White House they have “high confidence” that Russia is behind the DNC breach.
July 27, 2016: At a press conference in Florida, Trump urges Russia to hack Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
August 17, 2016: Trump receives the first of several classified briefings by intelligence agencies that included information about the hacking incidents, including “direct links” between Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and the hacks and email leaks. Clinton and Trump are entitled to these briefings as the major party presidential nominees.
August 21, 2016: Trump ally Roger Stone, who has close ties to WikiLeaks and Russia, predicts: “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel”.
September 8, 2016:
- In an interview with the Russian government-backed RT cable channel, Trump said it was “probably unlikely” Putin was behind the hacks. Instead, he claimed: “I think maybe the Democrats are putting that out. Who knows, but I think it’s pretty unlikely.”
- At the Commander-in-Chief Forum, Trump declares that Vladimir Putin has been “a leader far more” than President Barack Obama.
September 26, 2016: During the first presidential debate, Trump questions intelligence community findings that Russia broke into the DNC: “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC. [Clinton’s] saying Russia, Russia, Russia, but I don’t—maybe it was. I mean, it could be Russia, but it could also be China. It could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”
October 7, 2016: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security, or DHS, and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper release a unanimous assessment on behalf of the intelligence community that formally accuses the Russian government of stealing and leaking emails from the DNC and other U.S. political organizations. Their statement says that the leaked emails “are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process.”
October 7, 2016: The “Access Hollywood” tape of Trump sexually harassing a woman is released. Hours later, WikiLeaks begins posting Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s stolen emails.
October 10, 2016: During the second presidential debate, Trump questions whether any hacking had occurred, saying “maybe there is no hacking”. He adds: “They always blame Russia, and the reason they blame Russia is because they think they are trying to tarnish me with Russia.”
October 20, 2016: During the third presidential debate, Trump again questions whether hacking had occurred, saying says “our country” has “no idea whether it is Russia, China or anybody else.”
November 7, 2016: WikiLeaks releases more DNC emails.
November 8, 2016: Election Day
December 7, 2016: In an interview with Time magazine after the election, President-elect Trump reiterates, “It could be Russia. And it could be China. And it could be some guy in his home in New Jersey.”
December 9, 2016:
- According to The Washington Post, a secret CIA assessment concludes that Russia intervened in the 2016 election with the explicit aim of helping Trump win the presidency, rather than just sowing chaos in the American electoral process. This was reported to be a “consensus” view of the intelligence community.
- President Obama directs the intelligence community to conduct a thorough review of what happened during the election.
- The Trump transition team responds with a statement that reads: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. The election ended a long time ago in one of the biggest Electoral College victories in history. It’s now time to move on and ‘Make America Great Again.’”
December 28, 2016: As word of potential Obama administration sanctions on Russia spreads, The Washington Post reports that Kislyak sent a message to retired Lt. Gen Michael Flynn—Trump’s pick for national security adviser—requesting a call. Flynn takes the call, and according to U.S. intelligence officials, discusses the possibility of easing sanctions on Russia during the Trump administration.
December 29, 2016:
- The FBI and DHS release a report, “GRIZZLY STEPPE — Russian Malicious Cyber Activity,” that provides technical details regarding the tools and infrastructure used by the Russian civilian and military intelligence services—known as the RIS—to compromise and exploit networks and endpoints associated with the U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. government, political, and private-sector entities.
- President Obama imposes new sanctions on Russia and ejects 35 Russian diplomats from the United States. The measures are aimed at punishing Russia’s state-sponsored political hackers and deterring further meddling in U.S. elections.
- Trump writes in a statement: “It’s time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation.”
- Flynn holds five phone calls with Ambassador Kislyak. According to three sources, the “calls occurred between the time the Russian embassy was told about U.S. sanctions and the announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that he had decided against reprisals”.
December 30, 2016:
- Putin announces that he will not retaliate in response to the new sanctions. Trump praises Putin’s decision: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
- According to The New York Times, Putin’s muted response—which took Obama administration White House officials by surprise—raised some suspicion that Moscow may have been promised a reprieve and triggered a search by U.S. spy agencies for clues.
December 31, 2016:
- Trump again doubts the intelligence agencies in a news conference in Florida: “I know a lot about hacking. And hacking is a very hard thing to prove. So it could be somebody else. And I also know things that other people don’t know, and so they cannot be sure of the situation.”
- Trump also says he will reveal something about the hacking incidents on Tuesday or Wednesday of that week.
January 3, 2017:
- Trump tweets: “The ‘Intelligence’ briefing on so-called ‘Russian hacking’ was delayed until Friday, perhaps more time needed to build a case. Very strange!”
- NBC News reports the briefing had always been scheduled for Friday.
January 4, 2017: Trump sides with Julian Assange and Russia over U.S. intelligence, tweeting: “Julian Assange said ‘a 14 year old could have hacked Podesta’ – why was DNC so careless? Also said Russians did not give him the info!”
January 6, 2017:
- The heads of the National Security Agency, FBI, CIA, and Office of the Director of National Intelligence brief Trump on the hacks for two hours in Trump Tower. The intelligence community leaders give Trump a report in which they confirm that Putin directed a vast cyberattack aimed at denying Clinton the presidency and installing him in the Oval Office. Soon after leaving the meeting, the intelligence officials release an unclassified version of the report.
- In a phone interview with The New York Times three hours before the briefing, Trump calls the response to Russian hacking nothing more than a “political witch hunt” carried out by his adversaries.
- After the briefing, Trump releases a statement: “While Russia, China, other countries, other groups and people are constantly trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our government institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democratic National Committee, there was no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
- At 11:00 that night, Trump took to Twitter, blaming Democrats for the cyberattacks: “Gross negligence by the Democratic National Committee allowed hacking to take place. The Republican National Committee had strong defense!”
January 10, 2017:
- CNN reports that the intelligence community recently briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on allegations that Russian operatives had compromising personal and financial information on Trump. The allegations were based in part on unverified memos compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, which were later published by BuzzFeed.
- Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov also told reporters that the allegations that Russia tried to influence the elections were “reminiscent of a witch-hunt.”
January 13, 2017:
- Trump tells The Wall Street Journal that he is considering lifting sanctions on Russia. Kellyanne Conway, now a senior White House aide, reaffirms this stance two weeks later, in advance of Trump’s first official phone call with Putin.
- Incoming Trump press secretary Sean Spicer says that Flynn and Kislyak spoke on the phone on December 28, before the sanctions were imposed, and falsey claims they discussed an upcoming conversation between Trump and President Putin. Current and former U.S. officials say that assertion was not true. Instead, the officials allege the calls related to potential sanctions relief under a Trump administration.
January 15, 2017: On CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Vice President-elect Mike Pence denies that Flynn discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador: “They did not discuss anything having to do with the United State’s decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”
January 19, 2017: The New York Times reports that American intelligence agencies are analyzing intercepeted Russian communciations and financial statements as part of an ongoing investigation into President-elect Trump; his associates, including Flynn; and Russian officials.
January 20, 2017: Inauguration Day
February 8, 2017: In an interview, now-National Security Adviser Flynn denies discussing sanctions with Kislayk.
February 9, 2017: The Washington Post catches Flynn in his lie, reporting that Flynn did in fact discuss sanctions with Ambassdaor Kislayk before Trump took office. According to nine current and formal officials, “Flynn’s reference to the election-related sanctions were explicit.” Two officials added that Flynn had encouraged Moscow “not to overreact to the penalties being imposed by President Barack Obama, making clear that the two sides would be in position to review the matter after Trump was sworn in as president.”
Corey Ciorciari is the Director of Policy and Research and Anna Perina is a Campaign Research Associate at the Center for American Progress Action Fund.