Former Director of National Intelligence (DNI) James Clapper testified to Congress in July of 2017 that he never briefed then-President Barack Obama on the substance of phone calls between Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak and incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Accounts from fired former Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) executives James Comey and Andrew McCabe, however, directly contradict Clapper’s claim under oath that he never briefed Obama on the conversations between Flynn and Kislyak which were used to justify Flynn’s ouster as President Donald Trump’s top foreign policy adviser.
The identities of the Obama administration officials who were aware of the calls between Flynn and Kislyak have become a key question in the investigation of U.S. attorney John Durham to determine whether any laws were broken during the course of the Crossfire Hurricane probe of the Trump campaign. The substance of those calls, which is classified at the highest levels, was leaked to multiple Washington Post reporters in early January in order to create a pretext for the FBI to interview Flynn. Handwritten documents from Bill Priestap, the FBI’s top counterintelligence official at the time, show that FBI officials wanted to use the calls and their interview of Flynn to “get him fired” as Trump’s national security adviser.
On July 17, 2017, Clapper was called to testify before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the committee’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections. During that testimony, Clapper repeatedly testified that he was bothered to learn that Flynn, at the time the incoming president’s designee to serve as White House National Security Adviser, had repeatedly spoken to foreign leaders, such as Kislyak, during the presidential transition.
Clapper said he thought Flynn may have “violated the principle that in this country we traditionally have one President and one administration at a time.”
“I will tell you that I had concerns about that as I watched all this before I left,” Clapper said, referring to Flynn’s conversations with foreign leaders.
Later in his testimony, Clapper said it was “disconcerting” to learn of Flynn’s calls with Kislyak just weeks before Trump’s inauguration as president.
“Do you know who told you about the conversation [between Flynn and Kislyak]?” Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Fla., asked Clapper.
“Bobb Litt, my general counsel,” Clapper said.
“What was your response when he told you?” Rooney asked.
“I was kind of disturbed about it, frankly,” Clapper answered. “So it was disconcerting, I’ll put it that way, to learn of that conversation.”
“Did you ever brief President Obama on the phone call, the Flynn-Kislyak phone calls?” Rooney asked.
“No,” Clapper replied.
James Comey and Andrew McCabe, the director and deputy director of the FBI, respectively, both of whom were fired for corruption, directly contradicted Clapper’s testimony that he never told Obama about the intercepted phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak.
During congressional testimony on March 2, 2017, Comey said Clapper himself briefed Obama on the phone calls ahead of a pivotal Oval Office meeting about the matter between Obama, then-White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Comey, and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates.
According to Comey, the FBI was tasked with helping to figure out why Russia didn’t escalate tensions with the U.S. following the expulsion of several dozen Russian diplomats in late 2016.
“[A]ll the Intelligence Community was trying to figure out, so what is going on here?” Comey testified. “And so we were all tasked to find out, do you have anything [redacted] that might reflect on this. That turned up these calls [between Flynn and Kislyak] at the end of December, beginning of January.”
“And then I briefed it to the Director of National Intelligence, and Director Clapper asked me for copies [redacted], which I shared with him,” Comey continued. “In the first week of January, he briefed the President and the Vice President and then President Obama’s senior team about what we found and what we had seen to help them understand why the Russians were reacting the way they did.”
In his book, McCabe told a similar story and pegged Clapper as the official who briefed Obama about the Flynn calls.
“The [Presidential Daily Briefing] staff decided to write an intelligence assessment as to why Putin made the choice he did,” McCabe wrote. “They issued a request to the intelligence community: Anyone who had information on the topic was invited to offer it for consideration.”
“In response to that request, the FBI queried our own holdings,” McCabe continued. “We came across information indicating that General Michael Flynn, the president-elect’s nominee for the post of national security adviser, had held several conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak, in which the sanctions were discussed.”
“An analyst shared it with me; I shared it with Comey; Comey shared it with the director of national intelligence, James Clapper; and Clapper verbally briefed it to President Obama,” McCabe wrote.
The Presidential Daily Briefing, or PDB, is an intelligence project compiled by the office of the DNI that seeks to collate and summarize for the president the major threats facing the U.S. each day. The department that manages the PDB reports directly to the DNI.
Clapper has a history of lying to Congress. In 2013 when asked directly by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., whether the National Security Agency (NSA) collected information on Americans, Clapper lied and said no.
“James Clapper needs to stop making excuses for lying to the American people about mass surveillance,” Wyden said in 2019, after Clapper offered myriad excuses for why he was not truthful with Congress. “To be clear: I sent him the question in advance. I asked him to correct the record afterward. He chose to let the lie stand.”
On January 12, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius reported that a “senior U.S. government official” told him about the Flynn-Kislyak calls. Ignatius then suggested that Flynn’s conversations might run afoul of an unconstitutional and never successfully prosecuted 1799 law that criminalizes certain private speech critical of U.S. foreign policy. Ignatius was the first journalist to publicly confirm the existence and substance of Flynn’s calls and to raise the idea that Flynn should be criminally investigated for them. Comey himself cited the Ignatius article as a reason why the FBI needed to interview Flynn.
Washington Post reporter Adam Entous revealed during an October 2017 conference at Georgetown University that he had received similar leaks from multiple government officials before Ignatius’ column was published.
“[M]y sources start then, my sources start whispering to me that there were all these mysterious communications between Michael Flynn, who was then the National Security Advisor designate for Trump and the Russian ambassador, Kislyak,” Entous said.
During the conference, Entous said there were divisions within the newsroom at the Washington Post about whether those conversations were even newsworthy.
“Why is it news that Michael Flynn is talking to the Russian ambassador?” Entous asked. “He should be talking to the Russian ambassador.”
“I was arguing internally that we need something more than just the fact that there was a conversation but I’m one of many
reporters,” Entous continued.
According to Entous, the story was spiked by the newsroom, and that’s when the leaks migrated to Ignatius, whom Entous said had a lower standard for reporting because he was a columnist and not a formal reporter.
“This is something a columnist can do, unlike me as a news reporter, he was able to just throw this piece of red meat out there and just say, ‘There was this conversation. What was it about?'” Entous said. “I’m defending our decision not to run with this story earlier about just this flurry of questionable communications because I didn’t think it was enough.”
The New York Times reported in April that U.S. Attorney John Durham, who was tasked by Attorney General William Barr to determine whether the FBI or other agencies involved in the anti-Trump Crossfire Hurricane investigation violated the law, was working to determine who leaked the existence of substance of the Flynn-Kislyak to reporters in early 2017.