White House de­fends chief of staff

Press sec­re­tary: Priebus had lit­tle choice but ask for FBI help

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - In­for­ma­tion for this ar­ti­cle was con­trib­uted by Julie Pace, Eric Tucker, Vi­vian Salama, Jill Colvin and Ken Thomas of The As­so­ci­ated Press; by Julie Hirschfeld Davis, Michael S. Sch­midt and Matt Apuzzo of The New York Times; and by Justin Sink of Bloomber

WASH­ING­TON — The White House on Fri­day de­fended Chief of Staff Reince Priebus against ac­cu­sa­tions he breached a gov­ern­ment fire­wall when he asked FBI Direc­tor James Comey to pub­licly dis­pute me­dia re­ports that Don­ald Trump’s cam­paign ad­vis­ers had been fre­quently in touch with Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agents.

The pres­i­dent’s spokesman, Sean Spicer, ar­gued that Priebus had lit­tle choice but to seek Comey’s as­sis­tance in re­but­ting what Spicer said were in­ac­cu­rate re­ports about con­tacts dur­ing last year’s pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. The FBI did not is­sue the state­ment re­quested by Priebus and has given no sign one is forth­com­ing.

“I don’t know what else we were sup­posed to do,” Spicer said.

The Jus­tice Depart­ment has poli­cies in place to limit com­mu­ni­ca­tions be­tween the White House and the FBI about pend­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Trump of­fi­cials on Fri­day con­firmed con­tacts be­tween Priebus and the FBI.

Spicer said it was the FBI that first ap­proached the White House about the ve­rac­ity of a New York Times story as­sert­ing that Trump ad­vis­ers had con­tacts with Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Spicer said Priebus then asked both FBI Direc­tor James Comey and Deputy Direc­tor Andrew McCabe if

they would con­demn the story pub­licly, which they de­clined to do.

“The chief of staff said, well, you’ve put us in a very dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tion,” Spicer said. “You’ve told us that a story that made some fairly sig­nif­i­cant ac­cu­sa­tions was not true. And now you want us to just sit out there.”

The FBI would not com­ment on the mat­ter or ver­ify the White House ac­count.

Fri­day’s rev­e­la­tions were the lat­est wrin­kle in Trump’s re­la­tion­ship with the FBI and other in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. Trump has ac­cused in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials of re­leas­ing clas­si­fied in­for­ma­tion about him to the me­dia, declar­ing in a tweet Fri­day morn­ing that the FBI was “to­tally un­able to stop the na­tional se­cu­rity ‘leak­ers’ that have per­me­ated our gov­ern­ment for a long time.”

House Mi­nor­ity Leader Nancy Pelosi, a Cal­i­for­nia Demo­crat, ac­cused Priebus of “an out­ra­geous breach of the FBI’s in­de­pen­dence” and called on the Jus­tice Depart­ment’s in­spec­tor gen­eral to look into all con­ver­sa­tions Priebus and other White House of­fi­cials have held with the FBI on on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

“The rule of law de­pends on the FBI’s complete in­de­pen­dence, free from po­lit­i­cal pres­sure from the tar­gets of its in­ves­ti­ga­tions,” Pelosi said.

A 2009 memo from then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Eric Holder said the Jus­tice Depart­ment is to 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.”

Ron Hosko, a re­tired FBI as­sis­tant direc­tor who over­saw crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, said the dis­cus­sions be­tween the FBI and the Trump White House were in­ad­vis­able.

“It is a very slip­pery slope,” Hosko said. “Do I get in the po­si­tion of where I’m up­dat­ing the White House on my pri­or­ity crim­i­nal cases? The an­swer is no, I should not be do­ing that.”

Other FBI vet­er­ans said the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween Priebus and the FBI were not un­prece­dented. Robert An­der­son, a re­tired ex­ec­u­tive as­sis­tant direc­tor who served un­der Comey and over­saw coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tions, said con­tacts be­tween the bureau and White House are “usu­ally very well-doc­u­mented” to avoid the per­cep­tion of in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tacts.

CNN first re­ported that Priebus had asked the FBI for help, and a White House of­fi­cial con­firmed the mat­ter Thurs­day night.

On Fri­day morn­ing, two other se­nior White House of­fi­cials sum­moned re­porters to a brief­ing to ex­pand on the time­line of events.

The White House of­fi­cials would only dis­cuss the mat­ter on the con­di­tion of anonymity.

Trump has been shad­owed by ques­tions about po­ten­tial ties to Rus­sia since win­ning the elec­tion. U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies have con­cluded that Rus­sia med­dled in the cam­paign in an ef­fort to help Trump de­feat Demo­crat Hil­lary Clin­ton.

On Feb. 14, The New York Times re­ported that in­tel­li­gence agen­cies had col­lected phone records and call in­ter­cepts show­ing fre­quent com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Trump ad­vis­ers and Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agents dur­ing the cam­paign. Trump has said he is not aware of such con­tacts.

The White House said Priebus was hold­ing a pre­vi­ously sched­uled meet­ing with McCabe the morn­ing af­ter the Times story was pub­lished. Ac­cord­ing to Spicer, McCabe told Priebus in “very col­or­ful terms” that the re­port was in­ac­cu­rate, prompt­ing the chief of staff to ask if the FBI would make its view known pub­licly.

Spicer said McCabe told the White House that the FBI did not want to be in the prac­tice of re­but­ting news stories. A sim­i­lar mes­sage was con­veyed to Priebus later in the day by Comey, ac­cord­ing to the White House spokesman.

The White House said McCabe and Comey in­stead gave Priebus the go-ahead to dis­credit the story pub­licly, some­thing the FBI has not con­firmed.

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.”

The ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor of the Times, Dean Ba­quet, said Fri­day that “the Times had nu­mer­ous sources con­firm­ing this story.”

“At­tack­ing it does not make it less true,” Ba­quet said.

Dur­ing the cam­paign, Trump and other Repub­li­cans strongly crit­i­cized a meet­ing be­tween At­tor­ney Gen­eral Loretta Lynch and for­mer Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton, hus­band of Trump’s gen­eral elec­tion op­po­nent. 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.

Spicer said he was not aware of an FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Trump cam­paign ad­vis­ers’ con­tacts with Rus­sia. Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have ac­knowl­edged that the FBI in­ter­viewed ousted na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser Michael Flynn about his com­mu­ni­ca­tions with Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador to the U.S. dur­ing the tran­si­tion.

Flynn was fired af­ter it was re­vealed that he mis­led Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and other White House of­fi­cials about the con­tent of those con­ver­sa­tions.


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