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Flynn urged Russian diplomat to have 'reciprocal' response to Obama sanctions, new transcripts show

Michael Flynn urged a top Russian diplomat in late 2016 to make a "reciprocal" response to the Obama administration's sanctions on the Kremlin for its interference in the recently completed presidential race, arguing against escalating matters.

Flynn, who was then President-elect Trump's incoming national security adviser, warned then-Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak against one country trying to "be the tough guy" against the other, according to transcripts of the phone call, which were declassified and released on Friday. And he asked that the Moscow official not allow the Obama administration to "box us in" with the sanctions.

Flynn asked that Russia's response be a measured one — "because I know you have to have some sort of action" — emphasizing that Moscow should "make it reciprocal."

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"Don't go any further than you have to. Because I don't want us to get into something that has to escalate ... on a tit for tat. You follow me, Ambassador?" he continued.

Kislyak then responded to Flynn by highlighting how "sentiments ... are raging in Moscow.”

Flynn indicated that he understood, but he continued to push that he didn't want this back-and-forth to turn into "something bigger" where "everybody's got to go back and forth and everybody's got to be the tough guy here."

The exchange, which took place on Dec. 29, 2016, before Trump took office, is at the center of the controversy over the FBI’s Russia probe, which examined contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russia. 

Trump and his allies have argued that Obama administration officials abused their powers to target Flynn and hurt the incoming administration. Democrats counter that the White House is seeking to put misplaced blame on government institutions ahead of the 2020 election while downplaying Moscow's efforts to meddle in the 2016 vote and help Trump get elected.

The multiple phone transcripts and summaries, which were sent to Congress, were declassified by Director of National Intelligence (DNI) John RatcliffeJohn Lee RatcliffeTrump alumni launch America First Policy Institute Sunday shows preview: Democrats eye two-part infrastructure push; Michigan coronavirus cases surge Former Trump officials eye bids for political office MORE as one of his first moves as Trump's new intelligence chief. The move came after a bipartisan push to declassify the conversations from Trump and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.

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Some of the transcripts separately detail conversations between the retired three-star general and Kisylak about other foreign policy matters, including the Middle East and fighting terrorism.

Flynn’s conversations with Kislyak put him at the heart of the Russia counterintelligence investigation. 

Flynn was fired by Trump less than a month into the new administration for misleading Vice President Pence about his conversations with Kislyak. And he pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to federal agents about them. He later sought to withdraw that plea.

The legal battle took an unexpected turn recently when Attorney General William BarrBill BarrDemocrats, activists blast reported Trump DOJ effort to get journalists' phone records Trump admin got phone records of WaPo reporters covering Russia probe: report The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Emergent BioSolutions - Facebook upholds Trump ban; GOP leaders back Stefanik to replace Cheney MORE made the controversial move to drop the case against Flynn, sparking outrage from Democrats, former federal prosecutors and other critics of the Trump administration who described such a move as "unprecedented," particularly because they had secured Flynn's plea.

Barr pointed to the field notes released by the Justice Department last month that showed FBI officials debating how to handle the Flynn case. 

One FBI agent asked in a handwritten note whether it was their goal to get Flynn "to lie, so we can prosecute him or get him fired."

Trump allies and Flynn's legal team argue the notes show he was a victim of prosecutorial misconduct, and they have sought to cast blame on the Obama administration.

Critics argue that the FBI used standard tactics with Flynn, and that dropping the case is a way to help the president’s ally and give the Trump campaign a punching bag ahead of 2020.

Richard Grenell, who served as acting DNI, declassified the call transcripts before Ratcliffe was sworn into the role — leaving it to Trump's newly confirmed DNI to decide whether to release them. 

Grenell noted earlier this month on Twitter that while he didn’t have access to all the Flynn-Kislyak call logs, he did intend to declassify the ones he has received from the FBI.

Such a move came after Grenell had already released a series of other documents related to Flynn’s calls, including an email then-national security adviser Susan Rice sent to herself detailing a conversation she had with former President Obama and former FBI Director James ComeyJames Brien Comey'Fox News Sunday' to mark 25 years on air Showtime developing limited series about Jan. 6 Capitol riot Wray says FBI not systemically racist MORE about Flynn and Kislyak. 

According to Rice’s email, Comey had raised concerns about Flynn’s numerous conversations with Kislyak and said they should potentially consider restricting his access to classified information, but he said he had no evidence that Flynn had shared classified material. Rice also wrote that Obama told Comey to conduct the investigation “by the book.” 

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Still, Republicans have seized on the matter, which is likely to become a growing flashpoint as the 2020 presidential election grows closer.

Both sides on Friday said the transcripts aided their arguments.

"The appropriate response to General Flynn's calls w/ Kislyak shouldn't have been a firing, criminal investigation, or leaking of classified info" but instead a handshake and a thank-you, tweeted Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinThe US has a significant flooding problem — Congress can help GOP lawmakers ask acting inspector general to investigate John Kerry Andrew Giuliani to meet with Trump before potential New York gubernatorial campaign MORE (R-N.Y.), a staunch defender of the president.

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Democrats, meanwhile, argued that the transcripts proved the government had a legitimate reason for investigating and then charging Flynn.

“These transcripts clearly demonstrate that Lt. General Michael Flynn lied to the FBI and the Vice President when he denied discussing sanctions in a then-secret set of conversations with the Russian Ambassador," House Intelligence Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffTrump backs Stefanik to replace Cheney Gender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama Senate Intel vows to 'get to the bottom' of 'Havana syndrome' attacks MORE (D-Calif.) said in a statement. "These calls took place shortly after the Russian government interfered in the 2016 election in an effort to help Trump win, and Flynn was engaged in trying to mute the Russian reaction to sanctions imposed by the Obama Administration over that very interference."

—Updated at 6:11 p.m.