Trump ducks ques­tions as Rus­sia scan­dal deep­ens

Manila Times - - WORLD REPORT -

US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump dodged ques­tions Wed­nes­day about ties with Rus­sia, railed against in­tel­li­gence leaks and de­fended the na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor he just fired, as cri­sis en­gulfed his fledg­ling ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Amid rev­e­la­tions that Trump aides were in re­peated con­tact with Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials in the run- up to his shock elec­tion vic­tory last year, the Repub­li­can bil­lion­aire bat­tened down the hatches, even as mem­bers of his party called for a broader probe.

The 70- year- old pres­i­dent ac­cused his own in­tel­li­gence com­mu­nity of be­ing be­hind the leaks, directly point­ing the fin­ger at the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency and the FBI.

“This Rus­sian con­nec­tion non- sense is merely an at­tempt to cover- up the many mis­takes made in Hil­lary Clin­ton’s los­ing cam­paign,” Trump said in one tweet.

“The real scan­dal here is that clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion is il­le­gally given out by ‘ in­tel­li­gence’ like candy. Very un- Amer­i­can!”

At a press con­fer­ence with vis­it­ing Is­raeli Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, Trump called on re­porters sym­pa­thetic to his ad­min­is­tra­tion in or­der to dodge tough ques­tions about his aides’ ties to Moscow.

He ad­dressed the high- pro­file sack­ing of na­tional se­cu­rity ad­vi­sor Michael Flynn— only to blame re­porters for what he called the mis­treat­ment of his for­mer aide.

“I think he’s been treated very, very un­fairly by the me­dia, as I call it, the fake me­dia in many cases,” he said.

Trump de­manded Flynn’s res­ig­na­tion Mon­day, af­ter wire­taps showed he falsely claimed he did not dis­cuss sanc­tions pol­icy with Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to Washington.

Since then, Trump’s ad­min­is­tra­tion has been shaken by new re­ports of high- level Rus­sian con­tacts with his aides and as­so­ciates dur­ing the 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Among those picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, a Trump cam­paign chair­man who had worked as a po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant in Ukraine, The

New York Times said. Manafort called the re­port “ab­surd.”

‘Full ac­count’

In Moscow, Krem­lin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dis­missed the lat­est al­le­ga­tions.

“Don’t be­lieve news­pa­per re­ports— it’s very dif­fi­cult at the mo­ment to dif­fer­en­ti­ate them from false­hoods and fab­ri­ca­tions,” Peskov told re­porters.

“If you don’t mind, let’s wait and let’s not be­lieve anony­mous in­for­ma­tion, which is in­for­ma­tion based on no fact,” he said.

The rev­e­la­tions have in­fu­ri­ated Democrats and un­set­tled Repub­li­can lead­ers wary about Trump’s pro­fessed de­sire for bet­ter re­la­tions with Moscow.

“This on­go­ing story is a per­fect piece of ev­i­dence as to why we should not trust Rus­sia,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said.

Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic law­mak­ers have now called for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what hap­pened, al­though they dif­fer on the scope and pow­ers of the probe.

Demo­cratic Sen­a­tor El­iza- beth War­ren in­sisted that Trump “owes Amer­i­cans a full ac­count” of his cam­paign and ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deal­ings with Moscow.

The Se­nate’s top Repub­li­can Mitch McCon­nell said it was “highly likely” that Flynn would have to tes­tify be­fore an in­tel­li­gence panel.

Hawk­ish Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor Lind­sey Gra­ham minced no words in de­scrib­ing the se­ri­ous­ness of the cri­sis.

“It is a cloud over the White House,” said Gra­ham, who has called for in-depth in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Adding to ad­min­is­tra­tion woes, Trump’s pick for la­bor sec­re­tary, An­drew Puzder, with­drew from con­sid­er­a­tion Wed­nes­day.

The 66- year- old fast- food ex­ec­u­tive was un­der fire for his la­bor prac­tices, his hir­ing of an un­doc­u­mented mi­grant and old video that emerged of his ex- wife al­leg­ing do­mes­tic abuse.

Puzder de­nied his ex- wife’s al­le­ga­tion, which was later with­drawn.

‘ Trust is­sue’

In Jan­uary, US in­tel­li­gence agen­cies re­leased a de­clas­si­fied re­port con­clud­ing that Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin per­son­ally or­dered a wide- rang­ing cam­paign to dis­rupt and ul­ti­mately in­flu­ence the US elec­tion in Trump’s fa­vor.

The is­sue reignited fol­low­ing dis­clo­sures that Flynn, a re­tired gen­eral and for­mer head of the De­fense In­tel­li­gence Agency, made five phone calls with Rus­sian envoy Sergey Kislyak on De­cem­ber 29.

That was the day outgo- ing pres­i­dent Barack Obama launched re­tal­ia­tory sanc­tions against Rus­sia for elec­tion med­dling.

When the calls came to light, Flynn de­nied to Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and other White House of­fi­cials that he had dis­cussed the sanc­tions with Kislyak, and Pence re­peated the de­nial in a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view Jan­uary 15.

On Jan­uary 26, act­ing at­tor­ney gen­eral Sally Yates in­formed the White House le­gal coun­sel that in­tel­li­gence in­ter­cepts show that Flynn lied about the na­ture of the call, the White House ac­knowl­edged Tues­day.

Spokesman Sean Spicer said Trump was told about the in­ter­cepts im­me­di­ately. But Pence was kept out of the loop for two weeks.

In a show of bi­par­ti­san co­op­er­a­tion, the top Repub­li­can and Demo­crat on the Se­nate Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee asked the Jus­tice De­part­ment for a brief­ing and data re­lated to Flynn’s Rus­sia con­tacts.

“We sim­i­larly re­quest copies of the tran­scripts of Mr. Flynn’s in­ter­cepted calls and the FBI re­port sum­ma­riz­ing the in­ter­cepted calls,” com­mit­tee chair­man Chuck Grass­ley and Demo­cratic Sen­a­tor Dianne Fe­in­stein wrote to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions.

The White House in­sists Flynn was not act­ing on Trump’s in­struc­tions when he dis­cussed sanc­tions with Kislyak, but ques­tions have been raised about why Trump took so long to fire Flynn.

The White House coun­sel “de­ter­mined that there is not an il­le­gal is­sue, but rather a trust is­sue,” Spicer said. AFP

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