Donald Trump's national security adviser has been in regular contact with Russia's ambassador to the United States, it emerged on Friday, as the controversy around the president-elect's ties to Russia showed no signs of abating.
The White House is aware of phone calls between retired lieutenant-general Michael Flynn and ambassador Sergey Kislyak, a senior US official told the Associated Press.
It is not clear how the current administration learned of the contacts, although the AP noted that US monitoring of Russian officials’ communication within the US is known to be common.
The disclosure came after a week dominated by the release of a dossier, prepared by a former British intelligence officer, alleging that Russia had collected compromising information about Mr Trump and that there had been secret communications between them. The president-elect fired off a fresh round of tweets about the Russian connection that continues to overshadow the build-up to his inauguration a week from now.
Mr Flynn's contacts with Mr Kislyak reportedly included several calls on December 29th, the day on which Barack Obama announced the expulsion of 35 Russian officials, as well as other measures in retaliation for Russian interference in the election. The official said Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak have also been in contact at other times, according to the AP.
Sean Spicer, spokesman for the Trump transition, said Mr Flynn and Mr Kislyak had spoken on the phone around the time of the sanctions announcement, although he claimed the conversation had happened a day earlier, on December 28th.
“The call centred around the logistics of setting up a call with the president of Russia and the president-elect after he was sworn in, and they exchanged logistical information on how to initiate and schedule that call,” Mr Spicer told reporters on Friday. “That was it, plain and simple.”
The call followed text-message exchanges initiated by Mr Flynn on Christmas Day, in which he wished the ambassador a merry Christmas and said he looked forward to “touching base with you and working with you”, Mr Spicer added.
Mr Flynn's contacts with Mr Kislyak, who has served as Russia's ambassador since 2008, were first reported by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius.
“What did Flynn say, and did it undercut the US sanctions?” he wrote.
Asked if the administration was bothered by the reports, John Earnest, the White House press secretary, said: "I've read some of these reports and I think to answer your question as bluntly as I can: depends on what he said. I know that some members of the president-elect's transition team have tried to describe those conversations. Obviously I have zero insight into what may have been communicated back and forth.
“So I’d refer you to General Flynn himself or spokespeople for the transition who may be able to provide additional insight into the nature of those conversations and why those conversations were initiated.”
Asked about the report on MSNBC, Democratic senator Al Franken said: "I'm concerned with all of this, of course. This was a very big part of what happened in this election. This is unprecedented, this kind of foreign interference, and the Trump team's relationship I think is of import."
Mr Flynn has previous appeared on the Russia Today channel and attended a gala dinner it hosted in Moscow along with Russian president Vladimir Putin. He has spoken with other foreign officials since Mr Trump won the presidential election last November, as have incoming White House senior advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, Mr Trump's son-in-law.
Russian deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov said in November that the Russian government was in touch with members of Mr Trump's political team during the US election campaign and knew most of his entourage.
Mr Trump has repeatedly called for warmer US relations with Russia. "If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia," he told a press conference this week.
But his nominee for defence secretary, James Mattis, and other cabinet picks undergoing Senate confirmation hearings struck a more sceptical note, potentially putting them at odds with the new commander-in-chief.
US intelligence heads have said they are still investigating the material authored by a former British counter-intelligence official, Christopher Steele, originally as opposition research during the presidential election campaign.
As the controversy raged on, Mr Trump hit back on Twitter again. “It now turns out that the phony allegations against me were put together by my political opponents and a failed spy afraid of being sued . . .”
He continued: "Totally made up facts by sleazebag political operatives, both Democrats and Republicans – FAKE NEWS! Russia says nothing exists. Probably released by 'Intelligence' even knowing there is no proof, and never will be. My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!" – (Guardian service)