White House says chief of staff Reince Priebus not wrong to ask FBI director James Comey to dispute Russia links

'I don't know what else we were supposed to do'

Julie Pace
Saturday 25 February 2017 10:40
President Donald Trump
President Donald Trump

The White House has defended chief of staff Reince Priebus against accusations he breached long standing policy guidelines by asking FBI Director James Comey to publicly dispute media reports that Trump campaign advisers had been frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.

​President Donald Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, argued that Mr Priebus had little choice but to seek Mr Comey's assistance.

He required it to rebut what Mr Spicer called "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," Mr Spicer said.

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

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 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," 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.

White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus

Mr Priebus move was criticised by leading Democrats, including Adam Schiff, who sits on the House intelligence committee.

He said if the White House indeed contrived to have intelligence officials contradict unfavourable news reports, it threatens the independence of the intelligence community.

"Intelligence professionals are not there to serve as the president's PR firm," Mr Schiff said. "For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the administration to politicise its role."

Friday's revelations were 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 recent tweet 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 him 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," Ms Pelosi said.

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

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