White House Denies Reports of Russian Contacts Amid Search to Replace Flynn
The White House has disputed reports of contacts between Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russian officials, even as the president continued to search for a national security adviser to replace retired general Michael Flynn, who resigned last week after revelations that he misled the vice-president about his calls to Russia’s ambassador.
In a series of interviews, the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, flatly denied many reports, telling NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday: “We don’t know of any contacts with Russian agents.”
On Friday afternoon, the FBI director, James Comey, briefed members of the Senate intelligence committee on Russia behind closed doors. The FBI is reportedly investigating possible Kremlin contacts with Trump’s campaign, and earlier this year the CIA said in a report that Russia had hacked Democratic emails in an attempt to interfere with the 2016 election. The Senate committee sent the White House a letter on Saturday, the AP reported, asking federal agencies to preserve communications regarding Russia.
“And as long as they do their job, and we cooperate with them, they’ll issue a report, and the report will say there’s nothing there,” Priebus said, saying he had spoken to “the top levels of the intelligence community”.
Asked whether Flynn had lied to the FBI about his conversation with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, Priebus said: “That’s a different issue for the FBI to answer.”
Priebus also refused to say whether he had read transcripts of Flynn’s conversation with the Russian official. “We determined that he wasn’t being straight with the vice-president and others. And that’s why we asked for his resignation.”
He defended Flynn on the CBS program Face the Nation, saying: “There’s nothing wrong with having a conversation about sanctions,” but he also said he would defer judgment to the justice department and FBI “to take [the investigation] any further, if that’s what they want to do.”
The chief of staff also denied reports of turmoil in the White House and difficulty in finding staff willing to work for Trump or suitable to him. “The truth is, is that we don’t have problems in the West Wing,” he said.
As of Sunday, the administration’s search for a new national security adviser looked no closer to being resolved. The president, spending the weekend at his private Florida club, Mar-a-Lago, was scheduled to meet Sunday with four candidates, including the retired general Keith Kellogg, the former UN ambassador John Bolton, Lt Gen HR McMaster and the West Point superintendent, Lt Gen Robert Caslen. Late last week, Robert Harward, a retired vice-admiral and a former aide to the defense secretary, James Mattis, declined Trump’s offer to replace Flynn.
Harward said the decision was “purely a personal issue”, but sources told Reuters that he rejected the job in part because of his concerns with how Trump and Flynn have staffed the National Security Council. Last month, Trump gave his chief political adviser, Steve Bannon, a principal seat on the council and relegated the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and the director of national intelligence to only meetings requiring their “expertise”.
Priebus, the only administration official on Sunday’s talkshow circuit, denied reports that Harward had opposed Trump’s management of the NSC.
“The president has said very clearly that the new NSA director will have total and complete say of the makeup of the NSC,” Priebus told Fox News Sunday. “We’ve never put demands on an incoming NSC director.”
After the meeting with Comey, the Senate intelligence committee’s top Democrat, Mark Warner, told reporters on Friday: “We have put in a process to make sure that we are going to get access to the information we need.”
Nearly simultaneously, Marco Rubio, a Republican, tweeted: “I am now very confident Senate Intel Comm I serve on will conduct thorough bipartisan investigation of #Putin interference and influence.”
On Sunday, representative Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s continuing attacks on news reports and the anonymous sources feeding them were “deeply concerning”.
“This is something that you hear tin-pot dictators say when they want to control all of the information,” Schiff told ABC’s This Week. “It’s not something you’ve ever heard a president of the United States say.”
Senator Bob Menendez, a member of the foreign relations committee, called for an investigation of the scope and independence of the 9/11 commission.
“The question of Russia trying to undermine our democracy rises to that importance,” he told CNN on Sunday. “We have to know what was involved and what happened in the aftermath. We have a national security apparatus that’s mired in the muck of Russian connections.”
Like Menendez, the Republican senator Lindsey Graham said Congress should pursue sanctions against Russia into law over the Kremlin’s interference, even if Trump’s White House was more lenient.
Meanwhile, Graham promised that Congress would press ahead with a bill to sanction Russia for interfering in the US presidential election. “When one party is attacked, all of us are attacked,” Graham told CBS. “And if we don’t hit them hard, you will be empowering Russia.”
“The one thing that bothers me most about President Trump,” he added, “is that he never seems to forcefully embrace the idea that Russia’s interference in our election in 2016 is something that should be punished.”
The Trump administration’s faltering recruitment for key positions, and reports that the White House is firing or rejecting candidates based on their perceived loyalty to Trump, have rattled national security experts. Leon Panetta, the former defense secretary and CIA director, told NBC he feared the Trump White House lacked the structure or preparedness for a crisis.
“The thing that you worry about a great deal, particularly now with the loss of a national security adviser, you don’t have somebody in that place,” Panetta said.
“If he listens to the people that are closest to him now, and that are responsible for our foreign policy and our defense policy, he’ll understand that Russia is an adversary, it’s not a friend,” he added.