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Tuesday 26 September 2017

White House defends approach to FBI over Russia reports

White House chief of staff Reince Priebus wanted the FBI to dispute media reports that Donald Trump's campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election campaign (AP)
White House chief of staff Reince Priebus wanted the FBI to dispute media reports that Donald Trump's campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election campaign (AP)

The White House has defended its chief of staff against accusations that he breached a government firewall when he asked the FBI to publicly dispute press reports that Donald Trump's campaign advisers had been frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.

President Trump's spokesman Sean Spicer said Reince Priebus had little choice but to seek FBI director James Comey's assistance in rebutting what Mr Spicer said were inaccurate reports about contacts during last year's presidential campaign.

The FBI did not issue the statement requested by Mr Priebus and has given no sign one is forthcoming.

"I don't know what else we were supposed to do," Mr Spicer said.

The Justice Department has policies in place to limit communications between the White House and the FBI about pending investigations.

But Trump officials not only confirmed contacts between Mr Priebus and the FBI, but engaged in an extraordinary public airing of those private conversations.

Mr 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.

Mr Spicer said Mr Priebus then asked both Mr Comey and FBI 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'," Mr 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. The CIA also declined to comment.

The White House also enlisted the help of Republicans on Capitol Hill to talk to reporters about the New York Times story.

Jack Langer, a spokesman for California congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, said the White House asked Mr Nunes to speak to one reporter.

He said the chairman told the journalist the same thing that he had said publicly many times before - that he had asked, but not received any information from intelligence officials that would warrant a committee investigation of any American citizens' contacts with Russian intelligence officials.

Mr Langer acknowledged that this could make it harder to convince people that the House investigation into the matter would be independent and free of political bias, but said the White House did not tell Mr Nunes what to tell the reporter, or give him "talking points".

The most senior Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff, said if the White House indeed contrived to have intelligence officials contradict unfavourable news reports, it threatened the independence of the intelligence community.

"Intelligence professionals are not there to serve as the president's PR firm," he said.

"For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the administration to politicise its role."

The Washington Post reported on Friday that the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee was also enlisted by the White House.

The newspaper quoted Senator Richard Burr as saying he had conversations about Russia-related news reports with the White House and engaged with news organisations to dispute articles by The New York Times and CNN.

The revelations are the latest wrinkle in Mr Trump's already complicated relationship with the FBI and other intelligence agencies.

He has accused intelligence officials of releasing classified information about him to the media, declaring in a tweet on Friday morning that the FBI was "totally unable to stop the national security 'leakers' that have permeated our government for a long time".

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi accused Mr Priebus of "an outrageous breach of the FBI's independence" and called on the Justice Department's inspector general to look into all conversations he and other White House officials have held with the FBI on current investigations.

"The rule of law depends on the FBI's complete independence, free from political pressure from the targets of its investigations," she said.

A 2009 memo from then attorney general Eric Holder says 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".

AP

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