Michael T. Flynn, the national security adviser, during a news conference on Monday. Credit Stephen Crowley/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — Michael T. Flynn, the embattled national security adviser, faced an uncertain future on Monday as White House officials delivered conflicting messages about whether he still enjoys the confidence of President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
The Justice Department had warned the White House that Mr. Flynn had misled senior Trump administration officials about whether he had discussed American sanctions against Vladimir V. Putin’s regime during a phone call with Russia’s ambassador to the United States weeks before the inauguration, and that he could be open to blackmail by Russia, said a former senior official.
At the same time, Mr. Pence has told administration officials that he believes Mr. Flynn lied to him by saying he had not discussed the topic of sanctions on a call with the ambassador in late December. Even the mere discussion of policy — and the apparent attempt to assuage the concerns of an American adversary before Mr. Flynn took office — represents a remarkable breach of protocol.
The F.B.I. has been examining Mr. Flynn’s phone calls as he has come under growing questions about his interactions with Russian officials and his management of the National Security Council. In addition, the Army has been investigating whether Mr. Flynn received money from the Russian government during a trip he took to Moscow in 2015, according to two defense officials.
Such a payment might violate the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which prohibits former military officers from receiving money from a foreign government without consent from Congress. The defense officials said there was no record that Mr. Flynn, a retired three-star Army general, filed the required paperwork for the trip.
“The president is evaluating the situation,” Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, told reporters on Monday. Mr. Spicer said Mr. Trump would be talking to Mr. Pence and others about Mr. Flynn’s future.
In a sign of the internal confusion over Mr. Flynn’s status, the statement from Mr. Spicer came shortly after the president’s counselor, Kellyanne Conway, said in an interview on MSNBC that Mr. Flynn had the “full confidence of the president.”
The White House has examined a transcript of a wiretapped conversation that Mr. Flynn had with Sergey I. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador, in December, according to administration officials. Mr. Flynn originally told Mr. Pence and others that the call was limited to small talk and holiday pleasantries.
But the conversation, according to officials who have seen the transcript of the wiretap, also included a discussion about sanctions imposed on Russia after intelligence agencies determined that President Putin’s regime tried to interfere with the 2016 election on Mr. Trump’s behalf.
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Still, current and former administration officials familiar with the call said the transcript was ambiguous enough that Mr. Trump could justify both firing or retaining Mr. Flynn.
Mr. Trump, however, has become increasingly concerned about the continued fallout over Mr. Flynn’s behavior, according to people familiar with his thinking, and has told aides that the media storm around Mr. Flynn will damage the president’s image on national security issues.
White House officials have begun discussing the possibility of replacements, and President Trump is consulting Jim Mattis, the secretary of defense and a retired four-star general. Among the options are David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director, and Thomas P. Bossert, head of Mr. Trump’s domestic security council. Mr. Petraeus, a retired four-star general, was forced out as director of the C.I.A. because of an affair with his biographer, to whom he passed classified information. Mr. Petraeus would not need confirmation by the Senate as national security adviser.
Mr. Petraeus is expected to be at the White House on Tuesday, said a senior administration official who was not authorized to discuss the meeting and spoke on condition of anonymity.
Even if he stays, Mr. Flynn’s concealment of the call’s content, combined with questions about his management of his agency and reports of a demoralized staff, has put him in a precarious position less than a month into Mr. Trump’s presidency.
Few members of Mr. Trump’s team are more skeptical of Mr. Flynn than the vice president, numerous administration officials said. Mr. Pence, who used the false information provided by Mr. Flynn to defend him in a series of television appearances, was incensed at Mr. Flynn’s lack of contrition for repeatedly embarrassing him by withholding the information, according to three administration officials familiar with the situation.
Mr. Flynn and Mr. Pence have spoken twice in the past few days about the matter, but administration officials said that rather than fully apologize and accept responsibility, the national security adviser blamed it on his faulty memory — which irked the typically slow-to-anger Mr. Pence.
The slight was compounded by an incident late last year when Mr. Pence went on television to deny that Mr. Flynn’s son, who had posted conspiracy theories about Hillary Clinton on social media, had been given a security clearance by the transition team. The younger Mr. Flynn had, indeed, been given such a clearance, even though his father had told Mr. Pence’s team that he hadn’t.
Mr. Pence has relayed his complaints directly to Mr. Trump but has told White House officials that he will abide by whatever Mr. Trump decides about Mr. Flynn’s fate.
Officials said classified information did not appear to have been discussed during the conversation between Mr. Flynn and the ambassador, which would have been a crime. The call was captured on a routine wiretap of diplomat’s calls, the officials said.
But current Trump administration officials and former Obama administration officials said that Mr. Flynn did appear to be reassuring the ambassador that Mr. Trump would adopt a more accommodating tone on Russia once in office.
Former and current administration officials said that Mr. Flynn urged Russia not to retaliate against any sanctions because an overreaction would make any future cooperation more complicated. He never explicitly promised sanctions relief, one former official said, but he appeared to leave the impression that it would be possible.
During his 2015 trip to Moscow, Mr. Flynn was paid to attend the anniversary celebration of Russia Today, a television network controlled by the Kremlin. At the banquet, he sat next to Mr. Putin.
Mr. Flynn had notified the Defense Intelligence Agency, which he once led, that he was taking the trip. He received a security briefing from agency officials before he left, which is customary for former top D.I.A. officials when they travel overseas.
Still, some senior agency officials were surprised when footage of the banquet appeared on RT, and believed that General Flynn should have been more forthcoming with D.I.A. about the nature of his trip to Russia.
The following month, the D.I.A. director, Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, sent a memo to agency staff members saying agency officials should not provide briefings to former agency leaders during the presidential campaign.
James Kudla, a D.I.A. spokesman, said the memo was not directly the result of Mr. Flynn’s trip to Russia, but rather an effort by General Stewart to ensure that the agency was not becoming enmeshed in politics.
“Was the Russia trip one element of it? Yes,” he said. “But it was more broadly to ensure that other former senior officials and D.I.A. staff knew what the rules are to avoid the perception of taking sides.”
Defense officials said the White House would have to determine what penalty, if any, Mr. Flynn should face if he were found to have violated the Emoluments Clause.
Capt. Jeff Davis, a Defense Department spokesman, declined to comment.