FBI rejects White House request to publicly debunk Russia stories

The FBI rejected a White House request to publicly shoot down news reports indicating that Russian operatives were in contact with President Donald Trump’s inner circle before the election, CNN reported Thursday evening.

Trump administration officials wanted the FBI to disavow the reports and say there was no contact between people associated with Trump and Russia, the network said, citing multiple US officials familiar with the discussions.

CNN cited an unnamed law-enforcement official as saying the conversations began between White House chief of staff Reince Priebus and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe one day after the stories were published last week. FBI Director James Comey prevented the agency from weighing in on media reports, CNN said.

White House officials denied suggestions that they tried to goad the FBI into debunking news reports, CNN said. Additionally, the Trump administration has forcefully rejected allegations of contact with the Kremlin – and leveled harsh rebukes against US news organizations for using anonymous sources in their reporting.

The New York Times and CNN last week reported that the Trump campaign had frequent contact with Russian intelligence and government officials before Trump was elected president, news of interest because of US intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia meddled in the election to help Trump.

Citing US law enforcement and intelligence agencies, The Times said in its report that the contact between Trump associates and Russian officials was discovered during a concurrent FBI investigation into cyberattacks the US has said Russia carried out targeting Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

source
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager who was also previously an adviser to a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine, was the only American named in The Times’ report on February 14. In an interview with the newspaper, Manafort denied knowingly talking to Russian intelligence officials on behalf of the Trump campaign.

“I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation today,” Manafort told the newspaper.

caption
Paul Manafort, then Donald Trump’s campaign chairman, at the convention floor on July 18 before the opening session of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
source
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File

He added: “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer.'”

A White House request to have the FBI slap down media reports would violate Justice Department protocols outlined in memos from 2007 and 2009. The memos stipulated limitations on contact between the White House and the FBI during ongoing investigations.

US intelligence agencies are looking into Russia’s alleged liaisons with people in Trump’s orbit. Some of those allegations were outlined in a 35-page dossier originally compiled as political opposition research that has been making the rounds in Washington since last year.

US officials earlier this month said some elements in that document had indeed proved accurate – specifically, details of contact among Russian officials.

A top Democratic official has promised that the Trump-Russia investigations are “a long way from over.”

Such a request from the White House would follow a pattern the Trump administration has developed in its attempts to cast doubt on news organizations, a pattern that has intensified in the early weeks of Trump’s first term in office.

Comey’s apparent refusal to publicly reject reporting on the alleged Russian ties is a departure from moves he made during the election, in which he twice announced FBI inquiries into a private email server used by Hillary Clinton.

Comey’s comments on that matter were widely criticized by Democrats. The Clinton campaign ultimately blamed Comey directly for her loss in the November election.