Kellyanne Conway has been wheeled out to defend the White House’s handling of the shock resignation of Michael Flynn.
In an interview on NBC’s Today Show with Matt Lauer, Donald Trump’s counsellor appeared to imply the national security advisor would have kept his job had he not stood down, simply because the President is “extremely loyal”.
Under US law it is illegal for private citizens - which Flynn was at the time - to carry out diplomatic relations.
Only hours earlier, Conway had said Flynn had the “complete confidence” of Trump.
It also transpired the White House has been warned by the Justice Department last month about the call and had been told it may have made him vulnerable to blackmail by Russia.
Despite this, Flynn retained his position for a number of weeks and, according to Conway, only resigned when it emerged he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the content of the call.
The full interview went as follows:
In a resignation letter, Flynn said he gave Pence and others “incomplete information” about his calls with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
The Vice President, apparently relying on information from Flynn, initially said the national security advisor had not discussed sanctions with the Russian envoy, though Flynn later conceded the issue may have come up.
The White House’s official line as the drama unfolded changed numerous times and was notably absent from questions asked by reporters picked by Trump at recent press conferences.
Trump later tried to deflect attention from the scandal by tweeting:
A US official told The Associated Press that Flynn was in frequent contact with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day the Obama administration slapped sanctions on Russia for election-related hacking, as well as at other times during the transition.
An administration official and two people with knowledge of the situation confirmed the Justice Department warnings on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to discuss the matter publicly. It was unclear when Trump and Pence learned about the Justice Department outreach.
The Washington Post was the first to report the communication between former acting attorney general Sally Yates, a holdover from the Obama administration, and the Trump White House. The Post also first reported last week that Flynn had indeed spoken about sanctions with the Russian ambassador.
Trump never voiced public support for Flynn after that initial report but continued to keep his national security adviser close.
The White House officials sent contradictory messages, meantime, about Flynn’s job status. While Conway was remarking that Trump had “full confidence” in the retired general, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the president was “evaluating the situation” and consulting with Pence about his conversations with the national security adviser.
Asked whether the president had been aware that Flynn might have planned to discuss sanctions with the Russian envoy, Spicer said, “No, absolutely not.”
The Kremlin had confirmed that Flynn was in contact with Kislyak but denied that they talked about lifting sanctions. On Tuesday, Russian lawmakers mounted a fierce defense of Flynn.
Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the foreign affairs committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, said in a post on Facebook that firing a national security adviser for his contacts with Russia is “not just paranoia but something even worse.” Kosachev also expressed frustration at the Trump administration:
“Either Trump hasn’t found the necessary independence and he’s been driven into a corner... or russophobia has permeated the new administration from top to bottom,” he said.
Kosachev’s counterpart at the lower chamber of the Russian parliament, Alexei Pushkov, tweeted shortly after the announcement that “it was not Flynn who was targeted but relations with Russia.”
California Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Flynn’s resignation “does not end questions over his contacts with the Russians.” He said the White House has yet to be forthcoming about whether Flynn was acting at the behest of the president or others.