White House chief of staff Reince Priebus asked a top FBI official to push back against news stories about contacts between Trump aides and Russians during the presidential campaign, Trump administration officials acknowledged Friday, drawing accusations from Democrats of improper interference into a pending investigation.
White House officials dispute that Priebus did anything wrong, and a senior law enforcement official said FBI officials also did not consider any lines to have been crossed.
At issue is the reaction to a pair of stories from February 14, one in the New York Times and one on CNN. Each said that the FBI was examining evidence of contacts between Trump aides and Russians during the campaign — the Times called them "Russian intelligence officials," while CNN said "constant contacts" with "senior Russian officials."
Law enforcement and intelligence officials told NBC News at the time that there was indeed evidence of contacts between certain Trump aides and Russians, but that the U.S. had not determined that any of the Russians were intelligence operatives. Some of them had links to the Kremlin, sources told NBC News. The FBI is continuing to examine the evidence as part of its investigation into Russia’s interference in the election, a campaign intelligence agencies say was designed in part to help Trump. Senate and House intelligence committees also are investigating.
On Friday, senior administration officials told reporters in a background briefing that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe first raised the stories with Priebus, pulling him aside during an early morning meeting on Feb. 15 at the White House to tell him that the New York Times report was "garbage." (Friday’s anonymous briefing, it should be noted, was held moments before President Trump denounced the media’s reliance on anonymous sources during remarks before a conservative group.)
According to an anonymous senior administration official, Priebus responded to the FBI’s McCabe: "Okay, what am I supposed to do?" and "How do we fix this?"
According to a White House official, McCabe then talked to other officials at the FBI and determined there was nothing the FBI could do. FBI officials said they didn't want to get into the business of publicly parsing elements of news reports.
A senior law enforcement official would neither confirm nor dispute this account Friday, saying it wasn’t clear which side first brought up the stories, and that there were other contacts between the White House and the FBI on the matter.
The administration officials said Priebus asked if he could say that the story had been knocked down by top intelligence officials. FBI said he could, according to the senior administration officials.
On Meet the Press that following Sunday, Priebus told Chuck Todd: "We've spent days talking about a story that says that our campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies. And I can tell you, I've talked to the top levels of the intelligence community. And they've assured me that that New York Times story was grossly overstated, and inaccurate and totally wrong."
"What sane person would not say, 'Could you please correct this?' "
While sources told NBC News there were not "constant contacts with Russian spies," they say there is evidence of contacts — never admitted or explained by the Trump campaign — with Russians, at a time when Russia was carrying out a covert cyber campaign intended in part to help the Trump.
That remains a matter for investigation, and it’s a story that many in Washington believe could haunt the Trump administration.
Democrats, meanwhile seized on the Priebus-McCabe conversation as a violation of longstanding traditions holding that the FBI must be independent and the White House should never seek to influence a criminal investigation.
"The key thing here of course is the fact that the President’s people went to the FBI and said, we want you to do this," Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said on MSNBC. "That is a profound violation of the way we do business."
Senior Trump officials said they didn’t do anything wrong because they never discussed the investigation, only news reports about it.
"What sane person would not say, 'Could you please correct this?' " one official said.