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Mike Pence says Trump adviser's contact with Russia was "strictly coincidental"

Vice President-elect Mike Pence said Sunday that there was absolutely no contact between the Trump team and Russian officials during the campaign -- and that one adviser’s call with the Russian ambassador the same day sanctions were announced last month was “strictly coincidental.”

“Of course not,” Pence told CBS’ “Face the Nation,” asked whether anyone from the campaign was ever in touch with Russia. “I think to suggest that is to give credence to some of these bizarre rumors that have swirled around the candidacy.”

News reports in recent days have suggested officials with Mr. Trump’s campaign were in frequent contact with Russian officials during the election season, which the transition team has denied. However, Gen. Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s incoming national security adviser, has spoken several times with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak in recent weeks: The Washington Post reported that “several” calls between the two men occurred on Dec. 29, the day President Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats from the U.S. and imposed new sanctions over Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. presidential election.

“Actually it was initiated when on Christmas Day, he had sent a text to the Russian ambassador to express not only Christmas wishes but sympathy for the loss of life in the airline crash that took place,” Pence said, noting that he has discussed the issue with Flynn. “It was strictly coincidental that they had a conversation, they did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia.”

He added that Flynn has been in touch with diplomatic leaders in approximately 30 countries -- “that’s exactly what the incoming national security adviser should do,” he said.

“But what I can confirm having spoken to him about it is those conversations that happened to occur around the time that the United States took action to expel diplomats had nothing whatsoever to do with those sanctions,” he said.

The vice president-elect said he and Mr. Trump “welcome” Congress’ decision to look into Russian interference in the election, though they don’t expect it to change anything about the ultimate results from Election Day.

“We look forward to the results of their inquiry,” he said. “But make no mistake about it: I think they’ll find what the publicly released intelligence report showed before, is that there’s no evidence of any impact on voting machines.”

Pence echoed what Mr. Trump said at his press conference last week about future relations with Russia, saying Mr. Trump hopes the relationship can be better but knows that may not be possible.

“In the president-elect you have someone who is willing to approach this terrible relationship the United States has with Russia today with fresh eyes, and at least be open to a better relationship with Vladimir Putin and with Russia,” he said. “Look, we have some common interests that would be well-served if we were able to improve our relationship with Russia, most notably the battle to defeat radical islamic terrorism and to defeat ISIS at its source.”

Still, Pence added: “We’re coming at this with realistic expectations.”

Despite Mr. Trump’s cozy language with Putin and at times defense of Russia, his top Cabinet nominees for national security issues -- including defense secretary nominee James Mattis, director of national intelligence nominee Dan Coats and CIA director nominee Mike Pompeo -- have expressly said they view Russia as a threat that must be confronted when necessary.

Pence said these nominees’ stances on Russia are proof that Mr. Trump takes the threat of Russia seriously -- but later said all Cabinet nominees know with whom decision-making power really lies.

“The great thing about being around Donald Trump is you never have any confusion about who’s driving the bus and where the buck stops and who will make the final decision,” he said. “But I think as you hear the testimony of Rex Tillerson, of Gen. Mattis, of Mike Pompeo, I think the American people will be greatly encouraged by the fact that the President-elect is assembling around him people of extraordinary background and capability.”

As for an Esquire report saying the Trump administration is looking to move the White House press corps out of its decades-long spot in the White House Briefing Room, Pence said nothing has been decided -- and that the discussion is taking place because the transition team thinks more space will be needed for all the interest in covering the Trump White House.

“The White House press room ... is actually -- it’s a pretty small room,” he said. “And I think the interest of the team is to make sure that we accommodate the broadest number of people who are interested in media from around the country and around the world.”

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