ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Before she was fired, Sally Yates eventually did approach the White House Counsel less than a week after Trump took office. Today at a news conference, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer shared some more details about when and how the White House found out about the nature of Flynn's calls. We're joined now by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, who was at the news conference today. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.
SIEGEL: This afternoon, Spicer said Trump had asked Flynn to resign. What else did we learn today?
LIASSON: What we learned is that the president first learned about the content of the calls on the 26th of January. That's when the Justice Department told the White House Counsel. Sean Spicer, the press secretary, says the council then told the president. Spicer would not say if the president or anyone in the White House had actually read the transcripts of Flynn's calls with the Russian ambassador, but he said the president had the White House counsel review the issue, interviewed Flynn.
And although Spicer said that the White House immediately concluded there was no legal issue, the president ultimately concluded three weeks later - two and a half weeks later - that there was an erosion of trust. He asked for Flynn's resignation. That slightly contradicts what Kellyanne Conway had said...
LIASSON: ...This morning on television, which is that Flynn himself decided to resign.
SIEGEL: But if the president knew about this on January 26 and didn't let Flynn go until the 13th of February, what, according to the White House, changed in that period of time?
LIASSON: The White House just says trust was eroding. But what actually changed is that the story became public. On Friday - you just talked to the reporter from The Washington Post - The Post broke the story, and it became a political problem. And Trump has been very transparent about this. Today he tweeted. He said, quote, "the real story is leaks."
SIEGEL: But the implication of that is that if it hadn't leaked, Trump might have overlooked his national security adviser's misleading the vice president and others.
LIASSON: Yes, that's possible. Trump says the real story here are these illegal leaks. In other words, the story is not about Flynn talking to the Russians or lying to Pence but that the story was leaked. So he does seem to have overlooked this erosion of trust from January 26 to yesterday even though Sean Spicer went out of his way today to describe Trump as being, quote, "unbelievably decisive."
SIEGEL: What about the White House assertion that there's no legal issue here? Is it OK for Flynn to do what he did?
LIASSON: That's what the White House insists. The White House says Flynn talked to a bunch of leaders from different counter - countries, his counterparts during the transition. That was part of his job. There is something called the Logan Act which prevents private citizens and retired military officers, which would describe Flynn, from engaging in negotiations with foreign governments, but no one has ever been prosecuted under the Logan Act.
Now, to the extent that Flynn was suggesting to the Russians that sanctions could be lifted if they didn't overreact, that's actually not far off from what Trump himself was suggesting in public. He's left the door open to the possibility of potentially lifting the sanctions that President Obama placed on Russia after the hacking of the U.S. elections. But today, Spicer did say that Trump did not tell Flynn to talk to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions...
LIASSON: ...And that Trump didn't know about the phone calls Flynn was having.
SIEGEL: Well, given the controversy generated by his having talked about the sanctions with the Russian ambassador, does this make it harder for a President Trump now to lift the sanctions if he decided to do that?
LIASSON: I think it does. It was interesting. Today, Spicer went out of his way. He said, it's ironic. He said, the irony is that Trump has been incredibly tough on Russia, and that is ironic since Trump has been unfailingly and conspicuously positive about Vladimir Putin in all of his remarks. He's even gone so far as to draw a moral equivalence between the U.S. and Russia.
So today, Sean Spicer did a 180-degree turn on this. He said Trump wouldn't lift sanctions unless Russia returns Crimea. I asked him about sanctions on Russia's meddling in the election. Spicer said there are no planes - plans to change that sanction's regime.
I think what has happened is you're getting even more pushback from Republicans on Capitol Hill, not just Lindsey Graham and John McCain. You're hearing John Cornyn, Roy Blunt, even Mitch McConnell say they want to investigate Flynn's contacts with Russia. So I do think this controversy has produced another obstacle to Trump lifting sanctions...
SIEGEL: All right.
LIASSON: ...On Russia if that's what he wants to do.
SIEGEL: NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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