But it is evident from the emails — which were obtained from someone who had access to transition team communications — that after learning that President Barack Obama would expel 35 Russian diplomats, the Trump team quickly strategized about how to reassure Russia. The Trump advisers feared that a cycle of retaliation between the United States and Russia would keep the spotlight on Moscow’s election meddling, tarnishing Mr. Trump’s victory and potentially hobbling his presidency from the start.
As part of the outreach, Ms. McFarland wrote, Mr. Flynn would be speaking with the Russian ambassador, Mr. Kislyak, hours after Mr. Obama’s sanctions were announced.
“Key will be Russia’s response over the next few days,” Ms. McFarland wrote in an email to another transition official, Thomas P. Bossert, now the president’s homeland security adviser.
In an interview, Ty Cobb, the White House lawyer handling the Russia inquiry, said there was nothing illegal or unethical about the transition team’s actions. “It would have been political malpractice not to discuss sanctions,” he said, adding that “the presidential transition guide specifically encourages contact with and outreach to foreign dignitaries.”
The only problem, Mr. Cobb said, was that Mr. Flynn had lied to White House officials and to F.B.I. agents about what he had told the Russian ambassador. Mr. Flynn’s misstatements led to his firing in February and his guilty plea on Friday to charges of lying to federal agents.
With Mr. Flynn’s plea and agreement to cooperate with Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel investigating the Russian election interference, the inquiry edges closer to Mr. Trump. The president tried to persuade the F.B.I. director, James B. Comey, to drop the bureau’s criminal investigation of Mr. Flynn, and fired Mr. Comey after he failed to comply.
Mr. Trump and his aides have suggested that his concern about Mr. Flynn’s potential legal jeopardy was motivated mainly by the president’s admiration for his former national security adviser’s military service and character.
But the new details about Mr. Flynn’s Russia contacts underscore the possibility that the president may have been worried not just about Mr. Flynn but also about whether any investigation might reach into the White House and perhaps to the Oval Office. That question will be at the center of any consideration by Mr. Mueller of whether…