As Rus­sia probe be­gan, Trump called on spy chiefs

The News-Times - - NEIGHBORS -

WASH­ING­TON — Two months be­fore spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller was ap­pointed in the spring of 2017, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump picked up the phone and called the head of the largest U.S. in­tel­li­gence agency. Trump told Mike Rogers, di­rec­tor of the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency, that news sto­ries al­leg­ing that Trump’s 2016 White House cam­paign had ties to Rus­sia were false and the pres­i­dent asked whether Rogers could do any­thing to counter them.

Rogers and his deputy Richard Led­gett, who was present for the call, were taken aback.

After­ward, Led­gett wrote a memo about the con­ver­sa­tion and Trump’s re­quest. He and Rogers signed it and stashed it in a safe. Led­gett said it was the “most un­usual thing he had ex­pe­ri­enced in 40 years of govern­ment ser­vice.”

Trump’s out­reach to Rogers, who re­tired last year, and other top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials stands in sharp con­trast to his pub­lic, com­bat­ive stance to­ward his in­tel­li­gence agen­cies. At the time of the call, Trump was just some 60 days into his pres­i­dency, but he al­ready had man­aged to alien­ate large parts of the in­tel­li­gence ap­pa­ra­tus with com­ments den­i­grat­ing the pro­fes­sion.

Since then, Trump only has dug in. He said at a news con­fer­ence in Helsinki af­ter his 2017 sum­mit with Rus­sian leader Vladimir Putin that he gave weight to Putin’s de­nial that Rus­sia med­dled in the 2016 elec­tion, de­spite the firm con­clu­sion of U.S. in­tel­li­gence agen­cies that it had. “I don’t see any rea­son why it would be” Rus­sia, Trump said. And ear­lier this year, Trump called na­tional se­cu­rity as­sess­ments “naive,” tweet­ing “per­haps in­tel­li­gence should go back to school.”

Yet in mo­ments of con­cern as Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence in the 2016 elec­tion got underway, Trump turned to his spy chiefs for help.

The phone call to Rogers on March 26, 2017, came only weeks af­ter then-At­tor­ney Gen­eral Jeff Ses­sions had an­gered Trump by step­ping aside from the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. James Comey, the FBI di­rec­tor who would be fired that May, had just told Congress that the FBI was not only in­ves­ti­gat­ing Rus­sian med­dling in the elec­tion, but also pos­si­ble links or co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Moscow and the Trump cam­paign.

The call to Rogers and oth­ers like it were un­cov­ered by Mueller as he in­ves­ti­gated pos­si­ble obstructio­n. In his 448-page re­port re­leased Thurs­day, Mueller con­cluded that while Trump at­tempted to seize con­trol of the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion and bring it to a halt, the pres­i­dent was ul­ti­mately thwarted by those around him.

The spe­cial coun­sel said the ev­i­dence did not es­tab­lish that Trump asked or directed in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials to “stop or in­ter­fere with the FBI’s Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” The re­quests to those of­fi­cials, Mueller said, “were not in­ter­preted by the of­fi­cials who re­ceived them as di­rec­tives to im­prop­erly in­ter­fere with the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Dur­ing the call to Rogers, the pres­i­dent “ex­pressed frus­tra­tion with the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, say­ing that it made re­la­tions with the Rus­sians dif­fi­cult,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Trump said news sto­ries link­ing him with Rus­sia were not true and he asked Rogers “if he could do any­thing to re­fute the sto­ries.” Even though Rogers signed the memo about the con­ver­sa­tion and put it in a safe, he told in­ves­ti­ga­tors he did not think Trump was giv­ing him an or­der.

Trump made a num­ber of sim­i­lar re­quests of other top in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials.

On March 22, 2017, Trump asked then-CIA Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo and Na­tional In­tel­li­gence Di­rec­tor Dan Coats to stay be­hind af­ter a meet­ing at the White House to ask if the men could “say pub­licly that no link ex­isted be­tween him and Rus­sia,” the re­port said.

In two other in­stances, the pres­i­dent be­gan meet­ings to dis­cuss sen­si­tive in­tel­li­gence mat­ters by stat­ing he hoped a me­dia state­ment could be is­sued say­ing there was no col­lu­sion with Rus­sia.

Af­ter Trump re­peat­edly brought up the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion with his na­tional in­tel­li­gence di­rec­tor, “Coats said he fi­nally told the Pres­i­dent that Coats’s job was to pro­vide in­tel­li­gence and not get in­volved in in­ves­ti­ga­tions,” the re­port said.

Pom­peo re­called that Trump reg­u­larly urged of­fi­cials to get the word out that he had not done any­thing wrong re­lated to Rus­sia. But Pom­peo, now sec­re­tary of state, said he had no rec­ol­lec­tion of be­ing asked to stay be­hind af­ter the March 22 meet­ing, ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Coats told Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors that Trump never asked him to speak with Comey about the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion. But other em­ploy­ees within Coats’ of­fice had dif­fer­ent rec­ol­lec­tions of how Coats de­scribed the meet­ing im­me­di­ately af­ter it oc­curred.

Ac­cord­ing to the re­port, se­nior staffer Michael Dempsey “said that Coats de­scribed the pres­i­dent’s com­ments as fall­ing `some­where be­tween mus­ing about hat­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion’ and want­ing Coats to `do some­thing to stop it.’ Dempsey said Coats made it clear that he would not get in­volved with an on­go­ing FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion.”

Pablo Mar­tinez Mon­si­vais / As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

In this May 23, 2017, photo, Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency di­rec­tor Adm. Mike Rogers tes­ti­fies on Capi­tol Hill in Wash­ing­ton. Two months be­fore spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller was ap­pointed in spring 2017, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump picked up the phone and called Rogers and told him that news sto­ries al­leg­ing that Trump’s 2016 White House cam­paign had ties to Rus­sia were false and the pres­i­dent asked whether Rogers could do any­thing to counter them.

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