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 Trump campaign advisers had been frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents.
President Donald Trump's spokesman, Sean Spicer, argued 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 not only confirmed contacts between Priebus and the FBI, but engaged in an extraordinary public airing of those private conversations.
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. 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 Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House intelligence committee, said the White House asked Nunes to speak with one reporter.
He said the chairman told the journalist the same thing that he has 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.
Langer acknowledged that this could make it harder to convince people that the House investigation into the matter will be independent and free of political bias, but he said the White House did not tell Nunes what to tell the reporter, or give him “talking points.”
The ranking Democrat on the committee, California Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said if the White House indeed contrived to have intelligence officials contradict unfavorable news reports, it threatens the independence of the intelligence community.
“Intelligence professionals are not there to serve as the president's PR firm,” Schiff said, adding, “For its part, the intelligence community must resist improper efforts like these by the administration to politicize its role.”
The Washington Post reported Friday that the chairman of the Senate intelligence committee also was enlisted by the White House. The newspaper quoted Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., saying he had conversations about Russia-related news reports with the White House and engaged with news organizations to dispute articles by The New York Times and CNN.
Friday's revelations were the latest wrinkle in Trump's already complicated relationship with the FBI and other intelligence agencies. He's 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 Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi 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.