WASHINGTON — White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked top FBI officials to dispute media reports that President Donald Trump’s campaign advisers were frequently in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election, according to three White House officials. Democrats accused Priebus of interfering in a pending investigation.
The officials said that Priebus’ Feb. 15 request to FBI Director James Comey and deputy director Andrew McCabe came as the White House sought to discredit a New York Times report about contacts between Russian intelligence officials and members of Trump’s 2016 campaign team.
As of Thursday, the FBI had not commented publicly on the veracity of the report and there was no indication it planned to, despite the White House’s request.
White House officials said it was the FBI that first raised concerns about the reporting, but told Priebus the bureau could not weigh in publicly on the matter. The officials said McCabe and Comey instead gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly, something the FBI had not confirmed as of Friday morning.
CNN first reported that Priebus had asked the FBI for help and a White House official confirmed the matter to The Associated Press Thursday night. On Friday morning, two other senior White House officials summoned reporters to a hastily arranged briefing to expand on the timeline of events.
The officials said Priebus had a previously scheduled meeting with McCabe the morning after the New York Times story was published. Priebus and Comey then spoke later in the day.
The officials would only discuss the matter on the condition of anonymity, despite the fact that Priebus has complained publicly that the initial stories about Trump advisers’ Russia contacts relied on anonymous sources.
Trump himself, however, complained early Friday that the “FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time.”
“They can’t even find the leakers within the FBI itself. Classified information is being given to media that could have a devastating effect on U.S. FIND NOW,” Trump tweeted.
Priebus’ discussions sparked outrage among some Democrats, who said that the chief of staff was violating policies intended to limit communications between the law enforcement agency and the White House on pending investigations.
“The White House is simply not permitted to pressure the FBI to make public statements about a pending investigation of the president and his advisers,” said Michigan Rep. John Conyers, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
A 2009 memo from then-Attorney General Eric Holder said 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.” When communication has to occur, the memo said, it should involve only the highest-level officials from the White House and the Justice Department.
Trump has been shadowed by questions about potential ties to Russia since winning the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have also concluded that Russia meddled in the campaign to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Last week, Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn because he misled Vice President Mike Pence and other White House officials about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Flynn, who was interviewed by the FBI about his contacts, is said to have talked with the ambassador multiple times during the transition, including a discussion about U.S. sanctions policy.
Still, Trump and his advisers have denied having had contacts with Russian officials during the election. Last week, Trump said “nobody that I know of” spoke with Russian intelligence agents during the campaign.
Priebus alluded to his contacts with the FBI over the weekend, telling Fox News that “the top levels of the intelligence community” have assured him that the allegations of campaign contacts with Russia were “not only grossly overstated, but also wrong.”
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said Priebus’ comments opened the door for FBI Director James Comey to discuss the bureau’s investigation publicly.
“If the White House chief of staff can make public claims about the supposed conclusions of an FBI investigation, then Director Comey can come clean with the American people,” Wyden said.
Justin Shur, a former Justice Department public corruption prosecutor, said it was imperative that Justice Department investigations not be swayed by political considerations.
“As a general matter, investigations and prosecutions should be about gathering the facts and the evidence and applying the law,” Shur said.
During the campaign, Trump and other Republicans vigorously criticized a meeting between then-Attorney General Loretta Lynch and former President Bill Clinton, husband of Trump’s general election opponent. The meeting came as the FBI — which is overseen by the Justice Department — was investigating Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email address and personal internet server.
Associated Press writers Vivian Salama, Eric Tucker and Eileen Sullivan contributed to this report.