Trump adviser asked FBI to dispute Russia reports
Priebus accused of violating protocols protecting pending investigations from interference
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the White House “didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth”. Photograph: Getty
Donald Trump’s chief of staff asked the FBI to deny media reports that campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election, a White House official has said.
Reince Priebus’s discussion with the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, has sparked outrage, with some Democrats saying he violated policies intended to limit communications between the law enforcement agency and the White House on pending investigations.
The official who spoke late on Thursday would not comment when asked if the administration was concerned about the appropriateness of Priebus’s communications with McCabe.
The official was not authorised to disclose the matter publicly and insisted on anonymity. The FBI would not say whether it had contacted the White House about the veracity of the Times report.
When asked about the matter, the White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, was quoted by CNN as saying: “We didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth.”
John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House judiciary committee, said: “The White House is simply not permitted to pressure the FBI to make public statements about a pending investigation of the president and his advisers.”
A 2009 memo from the then attorney general Eric Holder says the Justice Department should advise the White House on pending criminal or civil investigations “only when it is important for the performance of the president’s duties and appropriate from a law enforcement perspective”.
When communication has to occur, the memo says, it should involve only the highest-level officials from the White House and the Justice Department.
Mr Priebus made the request after the FBI told the White House it believed a New York Times report describing the contacts was not accurate, the official said. As of Thursday the FBI had not stated that position publicly, and there was no indication it planned to.
The New York Times reported that US agencies had intercepted phone calls last year between Russian intelligence officials and members of Trump’s 2016 campaign team.
CNN first reported that Mr Priebus had asked the FBI to weigh in on the matter.
Mr Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. US intelligence agencies have also concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign to help Mr Trump defeat Hillary Clinton.
Last week Mr Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn because he misled the vice-president, Mike Pence, and other White House officials about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US.
Mr Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI about his contacts, is said to have talked to the ambassador on multiple occasions during the transition, including about US sanctions policy.
Still, Mr Trump and his advisers have denied contact with Russian officials during the election. Last week Mr Trump said “nobody that I know of” spoke to Russian intelligence agents during the campaign.
Mr Priebus alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that “the top levels of the intelligence community” had assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were “not only grossly overstated but also wrong”.
“If the White House chief of staff can make public claims about the supposed conclusions of an FBI investigation, then director Comey can come clean with the American people,” Mr Wyden said.
Justin Shur, a former Justice Department public corruption prosecutor, said it was imperative its investigations not be swayed by political considerations. “As a general matter, investigations and prosecutions should be about gathering the facts and the evidence and applying the law,” Shur said.
During the campaign Trump and other Republicans vigorously criticised a meeting between then attorney general Loretta Lynch and former president Bill Clinton. The meeting came as the FBI - which is overseen by the Justice Department - was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and personal internet server.
Agencies and Guardian Service