Top Trump transition official in private email: Russia 'has just thrown' the election to Trump

  • KT McFarland, a top official on President Donald Trump's transition team, said in an email last December that they should reassure Russia, which she said had just "thrown the U.S.A. election" to Trump.
  • The email, obtained by The New York Times, sheds new light on McFarland's role in coordinating the transition team's attempts to convince Russia not to retaliate against the US after President Barack Obama announced new sanctions and the expulsion of 35 Russian diplomats last year. 

A senior member of President Donald Trump's transition team said in email to a colleague on December 29, 2016, shortly after the Obama administration had imposed new sanctions on Russia, that the transition team should try to reassure the country that had just "thrown" the election to Trump.

The transition official, KT McFarland, told the unnamed colleague in the email obtained by the New York Times that the sanctions were aimed at delegitimizing Trump's election victory.

“If there is a tit-for-tat escalation Trump will have difficulty improving relations with Russia, which has just thrown U.S.A. election to him,” she wrote.

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K.T. McFarland -- former deputy national security adviser
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K.T. McFarland -- former deputy national security adviser
Kathleen Troia 'K.T.' McFarland, Deputy National Security Advisor Designate speaks during a conference on the transition of the US Presidency from Obama to Trump at the US Institute Of Peace at the US Institute Of Peace in Washington DC, January 10, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Robert C. 'Bud' McFarlane (L), former US president Ronald Reagan's national security adviser from 1983 to 1985; incoming National Security adviser Lt. Gen. Mike Flynn (C); and KT McFarland (R), incoming deputy national security adviser, walk in the lobby at Trump Tower on December 5, 2016 in New York. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 20: K.T. McFarland, nominee to be ambassador to Singapore, attends her Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing in Dirksen Building on July 20, 2017. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Kathleen Troia 'K.T.' McFarland, Deputy National Security Advisor Designate speaks during a conference on the transition of the US Presidency from Obama to Trump at the US Institute Of Peace at the US Institute Of Peace in Washington DC, January 10, 2017. / AFP / CHRIS KLEPONIS (Photo credit should read CHRIS KLEPONIS/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 9: From left, White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, senior adviser to President Trump, Deputy National Security Adviser K.T. McFarland and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn watch as Attorney General Jeff Sessions is sworn in in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC on Thursday, Feb. 08, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
KT McFarland, President-elect Donald Trump's selection to be deputy national security adviser, steps off the elevator after meetings at Trump Tower on December 5, 2016 in New York. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 2: (L to R) KT McFarland and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrive at Trump Tower, December 2, 2016 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 13: Republican Senate candidate Kathleen (KT) McFarland takes questions from news media at the home of a friend in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn. McFarland broke with her whole family in 1992 when she accused her father of incest - an explosive charge her brother, Tom Troia, calls 'complete baloney.' Today, McFarland refused to discuss Troia's accusations. 'I have five wonderful children and a very loving and supportive husband,' she said. 'Other than that, I have nothing else to say.' (Photo by Linda Rosier/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 3: KT McFarland, President-elect Donald Trump's choice for deputy national security advisor, gives the thumbs up as she arrives at Trump Tower, January 3, 2017 in New York City. President-elect Donald Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 1: National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, left, and K.T. McFarland, deputy national security adviser, center, listen as White House press secretary Sean Spicer speaks in the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, DC on Wednesday, Feb. 01, 2017. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
KT McFarland walks by the elevator at Trump Tower on December 12, 2016 in New York. / AFP / KENA BETANCUR (Photo credit should read KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
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McFarland previously served as deputy national security adviser before she was asked to resign by H.R. McMaster, who became national security adviser after Flynn's abrupt departure. 

It is unclear whether McFarland actually believed that Russia had "thrown" the election to Trump, or whether she was being sarcastic. A White House lawyer told the Times that she was mocking Democrats' accusation — bolstered at that point by a CIA assessment — that Russia had interfered in the election to help Trump win.

But the email sheds new light on McFarland's role in coordinating the transition team's attempts to convince Russia not to retaliate.

Former national security adviser Michael Flynn took the lead on those efforts and called Sergei Kislyak, then Russia's ambassador to the US, on December 29 to request that Russia refrain from escalating the situation further. They spoke again on December 31, when Kislyak called Flynn to tell him that Russia would accomodate his request.

Flynn made false statements about those conversations in an interview with the FBI in January, according to court documents unsealed by special counsel Robert Mueller's office on Friday. He pleaded guilty on Friday to one count of lying to FBI agents, which is a federal crime.

Trump was at Mar-a-Lago on December 29 when McFarland — who was also at Mar-a-Lago — and Flynn spoke by phone about Kislyak.

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Trump meets with Lavrov and Kislyak
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Trump meets with Lavrov and Kislyak
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US President Donald Trump, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak (L-R) talking during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: President Donald Trump (L) of the United States and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) speaks with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak during talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not inpicture) in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 10: (AFP-OUT) President Donald Trump meets with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office at the White House on May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: President Donald Trump (L) of the United States shakes hands with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as they meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak during talks with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (not in picture) in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov arrives at the White House for talks with US President Donald Trump. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 10: (AFP-OUT) President Donald Trump meets with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office at the White House on May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: President Donald Trump (L) of the United States and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L) and President Donald Trump of the United States meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 10: Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (C) leaves the White House May 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. Lavrov met with U.S. President Donald Trump to discuss Ukraine, Syria and other bilaterial subjects, according to the White House. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: President Donald Trump of the United States and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (L-R) meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: President Donald Trump (L) of the United States and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meet for talks in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, D.C., USA - MAY 10, 2017: Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US President Donald Trump, and Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak (L-R) talking during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander Shcherbak\TASS via Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, May 10, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JIM WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)
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'She wasn't calling the shots'

It is still unclear whether McFarland consulted with Trump before her call with Flynn. But Colin Kahl, a former national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, noted that "incoming Deputy National Security Advisors don't order their incoming boss what to do ... unless they were instructed to do so by someone higher in the chain of command."

Former NSC spokesman Ned Price agreed.

"KT McFarland’s recent foreign policy bona fides consisted of being a Fox News talking head," he tweeted. "She wasn’t calling the shots, and certainly not giving her own orders to her putative boss."

McFarland also discussed the sanctions with fellow transition official Thomas Bossert, telling him in an email that the “key will be Russia’s response over the next few days" to the sanctions, which McFarland characterized as an attempt by the Obama administration to “box Trump in diplomatically with Russia."

Bossert now serves as a homeland security adviser to the president. 

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Putting the Trump-Russia timeline into perspective
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Putting the Trump-Russia timeline into perspective
June 7: The 2016 primary season essentially concludes, with both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton as the presumptive party nominees
June 9: Donald Trump Jr. — along with Jared Kushner and former campaign chair Paul Manafort — meets with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
June 9: Trump tweets about Clinton's missing 33,000 emails
July 18: Washington Post reports, on the first day of the GOP convention, that the Trump campaign changed the Republican platform to ensure that it didn't call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces
July 21: GOP convention concludes with Trump giving his speech accepting the Republican nomination
July 22: WikiLeaks releases stolen emails from the Democratic National Committee
July 25: Democratic convention begins
July 27: In final news conference of his 2016 campaign, Trump asks Russia: "If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing"
August 4: Obama CIA Director John Brennan confronts his Russian counterpart about Russia's interference. "[I] told him if you go down this road, it's going to have serious consequences, not only for the bilateral relationship, but for our ability to work with Russia on any issue, because it is an assault on our democracy," Brennan said on "Meet the Press" yesterday.
October 4: WikiLeaks' Julian Assange says his organization will publish emails related to the 2016 campaign
October 7: WikiLeaks begins releasing Clinton Campaign Chair John Podesta's emails
October 7: Department of Homeland Security and the Director of National Intelligence release a statement directly saying that Russia is interfering in the 2016 election
October 31: "This WikiLeaks is like a treasure trove," Trump says on the campaign trail
November 4: "Boy, I love reading those WikiLeaks," Trump says from Ohio.
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“Russia is key that unlocks door,” McFarland wrote, according to the emails obtained by the Times. She said that the sanctions were an effort to “lure Trump in trap of saying something” in Russia's defense, and were aimed at “discrediting Trump’s victory by saying it was due to Russian interference.”

Bossert forwarded those emails to Flynn, former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former chief strategist Steve Bannon, and former White House press secretary Sean Spicer.

McFarland is now awaiting confirmation as the US ambassador to Singapore. But there was a time when the White House went to great lengths to keep her in a top national security role even when doing so didn't make much sense.

Trump's initial pick to replace Flynn as national security adviser, retired Vice Admiral Robert Harward, reportedly turned down the job because the White House would not allow him to replace McFarland with his own hand-picked deputy.

"Defending KT McFarland would be a very curious hill to die on," Politico reporter Michael Crowley said at the time.

"McFarland over Harward makes no sense," tweeted BBC reporter Katty Kay.

Flynn was eventually replaced by McMaster, and Trump nominated McFarland to serve as the US ambassador to Singapore. McFarland has yet to be confirmed nearly seven months later.

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