Inside Mar-a-Lago for 48 hours critical to the Russia investigation

Updated 8:04 PM ET, Sun December 10, 2017

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Story highlights

  • Here's a look back at a critical 48-hour period
  • It offers a fresh window into some of the early thinking and actions of the new Trump team

Washington (CNN)The answer to one of the most critical questions at the heart of the Russia investigation may well lie in the grand hallways of Mar-a-Lago.

Did President Donald Trump know Michael Flynn talked about sanctions during his conversations a year ago with the former Russian ambassador? Or did the President's small circle of advisers keep it from him?
A look back at a pivotal 48-hour period -- inside the President's Palm Beach estate -- offers a fresh window into some of the early thinking and actions of the new Trump team, the consequences of which are now front-and-center in the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
When Trump strode into Mar-a-Lago's Grand Ballroom last December 29, neither he nor his aides could imagine that day would come to haunt his presidency. But the decisions made during that period, as the President basked in the comfort of his retreat, still resonate a year later.
It's now clear that Flynn's lies to the FBI were rooted in his telephone call that day to the former Russian ambassador and his subsequent call to Trump advisers at Mar-a-Lago.
The answers may ultimately come from special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, but the questions begin during that critical period in Florida.
Here's a look back at what is known -- and what's still to be determined -- about what transpired Mar-a-Lago on December 28 and 29 last year:
  • Wednesday, December 28

  • Trump
    Working from Mar-a-Lago

    Then-President-elect Donald Trump received a flurry of visitors to his Palm Beach, Florida, club as he neared his Inauguration Day. Top aides — including Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, Reince Priebus, Stephen Miller and Hope Hicks — were seen at the club coming and going from sessions with the incoming president.

    Over the course of the day, Trump met with businessman David Rubenstein; a group of health care CEOs that included the chiefs of the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins and the Cleveland Clinic; and presidential historian Douglas Brinkley, who discussed past presidents' inaugural addresses. Brinkley was joined by Christopher Ruddy, CEO of Newsmax Media and a friend of Trump's, and Bloomberg View columnist Margaret Carlson. Emerging from the club, Carlson said they had cake for dessert.

  • Trump
    Phone call from Obama

    In between meetings with health care CEOs, presidential historians and longtime friends, Trump took a call from sitting President Barack Obama, who was on vacation in Hawaii. The two men had spoken on the phone periodically since Trump was elected, but their relationship was beginning to fray after Trump tweeted about "roadblocks" to a successful transition.

    At the time, aides to both men called the December 28 conversation cordial. "We had a very, very good talk," Trump would say later. "I actually thought we covered a lot of territory."

    Russia did not come up, aides say now, despite the widespread recognition that Obama was preparing to slap new sanctions on Moscow for the election meddling. Obama — who fired Flynn as director of the Defense Intelligence Agency in 2014 — had warned Trump about his incoming national security adviser about six weeks earlier in the Oval Office.

    By this point, aides now say, Obama advisers were being extraordinarily careful about what they were sharing with Team Trump. The skepticism was rooted in the fact that Trump had not only brushed off the President's warning about Flynn, aides say, but he and his advisers were openly downplaying and outright dismissing the fact that Russia had interfered in the election.

    Hours later, Obama signed the package of sanctions on Russia, which wouldn't be made public until the next day.

    Read Obama's executive order
  • Flynn
    Contact between Flynn and Kislyak

    On vacation in the Dominican Republic, Flynn received contact from Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, according to the court filing that was made public last week. He would later consult by phone with KT McFarland, a Trump national security aide who was in Palm Beach, about what he would say to the Russian ambassador about the sanctions, according to court filings and CNN's reporting identifying McFarland as the senior transition official.

    Read the court filing
  • Trump
    Trump schmoozes and speaks to the press

    Trump, meanwhile, spent the evening ensconced at a reception with 300 of Mar-a-Lago's wealthy patrons. Emerging from the wrought-iron doors with one of them — boxing promoter Don King — Trump told reporters that it was time to look past Russia's election meddling.

    "I think we ought to get on with our lives," he said. "I think that computers have complicated lives very greatly. The whole age of computer has made it where nobody knows exactly what is going on."

  • Thursday, December 29

  • Trump
    Quieter day

    Trump awoke in Florida for meetings with his national security team, according to the daily briefing from incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer. He also spent time drafting his upcoming inaugural address, which his aides hoped to focus his attention on over the holidays. His policy aide Stephen Miller was the lead speechwriter and was working at Mar-a-Lago for writing sessions with Trump.

  • Obama
    Obama announces new sanctions

    Just after midday, the White House formally announced the sanctions on Russia that Obama had signed a day earlier. According to a former administration official, Obama's White House chief of staff Denis McDonough called Priebus about the sanctions -- but only after they were made public.

  • Flynn
    Phone calls between Flynn, Kislyak and McFarland

    McFarland — the top national security aide traveling with the President-elect in Florida — spoke by phone with Flynn to discuss what he should say to Kislyak, according to the court filings released last week. While she was not mentioned by name, CNN has reported that McFarland was the transition official who spoke to Flynn.

    According to the court filings, Flynn was told that members of Trump's transition team at Mar-a-Lago agreed that they did not want Russia to escalate the situation. Members of Obama's administration — including his homeland security adviser, Lisa Monaco — had advised the Trump aides that an outsized response from Moscow was expected.

    Right after speaking with McFarland, Flynn spoke by phone to Kislyak, encouraging a muted response that didn't escalate the matter. And then he called McFarland back, relaying the details of his conversation, according to court filings.

  • Trump
    Aides huddle at Mar-a-Lago

    As the calls between Palm Beach and the Dominican Republic went back and forth, it's not clear who was meeting with Trump. Reporters weren't positioned at Mar-a-Lago as they had been a day earlier, making it nearly impossible to view his comings and goings.

    But former transition aides describe a series of meetings among Trump's advisers behind the scenes meant to plan a response to the new sanctions. It's not clear whether Trump participated in those sessions himself. By late afternoon, the team determined that Trump should issue a statement saying he was willing to be briefed by US intelligence officials about the Russian election meddling.

  • Trump
    Ballroom tour

    Around 5:50 p.m., Trump walked into Mar-a-Lago's grand ballroom with Bannon, Miller, Priebus and McFarland. The group listened intently as Trump, gesturing toward one of the Corinthian columns that line the wall, explained in detail the arduous permitting process it took him to construct the 20,000-square-foot space.

  • Trump
    Trump team responds

    Just after 6 p.m., Trump released a written statement about the Obama sanctions on Russia. "It's time for our country to move on to bigger and better things. Nevertheless, in the interest of our country and its great people, I will meet with leaders of the intelligence community next week in order to be updated on the facts of this situation," the statement read.

    Meanwhile, members of his team began appearing on television to downplay the impact the sanctions might have.

    "I will tell you that even those who are sympathetic to President Obama on most issues are saying that part of the reason he did this today was to quote 'box in' President-elect Trump," Conway told CNN's Kate Bolduan on "OutFront." "That would be very unfortunate if politics were the motivating factor here. We can't help but think that's often true."