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Kremlin denies that Flynn convinced Putin to hold off on retaliatory sanctions

Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, then President-elect Donald Trump’s choice for National Security Adviser, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Dec. 12, 2016. Flynn is expected to plead guilty on Dec. 1, 2017, to lying to the FBI about a conversation with the Russian ambassador in December 2016. (Sam Hodgson/Copyright 2017 The New York Times)

MOSCOW - The Kremlin issued several sharp, successive denials Monday to questions about whether then-President-elect Donald Trump's national security adviser, Michael Flynn, persuaded Russian President Vladimir Putin not to retaliate for sanctions issued by President Barack Obama.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters during a daily conference call that the answer was no, and for several reasons.

The Kremlin does not know anything about the talks with Flynn because they were conducted by the Foreign Ministry, he said.

Anyway, Flynn was not in a position to be making proposals to Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador, the spokesman continued, and they certainly would not have been passed along to the president.

And finally, Putin "makes decisions on his own," he added, guided only by Russia's national interests.

In conclusion? "It is completely absurd," Peskov said.

When Flynn pleaded guilty Friday, however, prosecutors asserted that Kislyak had called him on Dec. 31 and "informed him that Russia had chosen not to retaliate in response to Flynn's request."

Prosecutors said that Flynn then spoke with senior transition officials about the conversation and Russia's decision.

There was little doubt that the Kremlin would deny having any information about the allegations against Flynn, even as the special investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, led by Robert Mueller, closes in on an inner circle of advisers surrounding Trump.

In Russia, the accusations of meddling are treated with scorn as spurious and politically motivated, a way for Trump's enemies to gin up political anger at the embattled president.

Still, Flynn's phone calls fit into a timeline in which Putin reacted leniently after the Obama administration expelled 35 Russians described as "intelligence operatives," ignoring recommendations from his own Foreign Ministry to immediately expel 35 American officials in retaliation.

In late December 2016, Flynn called Kislyak to argue that Russia should not retaliate against the expulsion of the 35 Russians. The expulsion came in response to a U.S. intelligence assessment that Russian-backed hackers stole information from the Democratic National Committee's email servers and sought to swing the election to Trump.

Later that day, Putin issued a surprise directive: Russia would not respond immediately to the expulsions. Eventually, once efforts to repair U.S.-Russian relations stalled under Trump, Putin did cut the staff of U.S. diplomats and other government interests in Russia.

Peskov's remarks came as Russian lawmakers prepared to ban American media outlets from the premises of the lower house of the legislature, the State Duma.

A Duma committee Monday recommended a ban on American media organizations that the Russian government deems foreign agents. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, who attended the deliberation, said that could include "nine or 10" U.S. media outlets.

Earlier reports had said lawmakers could ban all 23 accredited U.S. media companies in retaliation for a decision to relieve the Russian state-funded television station RT, formerly known as Russia Today, of its accreditation to cover the U.S. Congress.

"What the American authorities are doing reminds us of the Soviet Union," Zakharova told reporters. "Not the best parts . . . but the interrogations, repression."

A Duma official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to comment on the proceedings said he hoped that the ban would affect only "companies that spread propaganda in Russia" and not "established media like the Washington Post, the New York Times and CNN." He named Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, which receive their funding from Congress, as organizations the Duma would probably ban.

Russia amended its law on foreign agents last month to include media outlets, in retaliation for the U.S. government's registration of RT as a foreign agent under a 1938 U.S. law.

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