The White House and congressional Republicans pushed back Monday on reports that aides with President Donald Trump’s campaign had contact with Russians — continuing a story line that continues to dog the administration.
The administration's defensive strategy — including outreach to Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Richard Burr and House Intelligence chairman Devin Nunes to counter the media narrative — comes as even some Republicans are questioning the independence of a congressional-led investigation.
The White House and Nunes on Monday acknowledged the congressman spoke to a reporter about the Russia matter. In an interview with the Washington Post, Burr told the paper he “had conversations about” media reports on the Russia controversy and spoke with news outlets to rebut reporting about the topic from the New York Times and CNN.
Earlier this month, the New York Times, citing current and former U.S. officials, reported that Trump campaign aides and senior Russian intelligence officials were in contact repeatedly during the campaign. Law enforcement and intelligence officials tell NBC News that the FBI is examining evidence of contacts over the summer between Trump associates and Russians, some with links to the Kremlin.
Nunes told reporters Monday he has not been given evidence that Trump’s presidential campaign staffers had contact with Russians. His confidence comes despite his acknowledgement that his committee is in the early stages of its investigation and have yet to begin collecting information.
“There is no evidence that I’ve been presented of regular contact with anyone in the Trump campaign,” Nunes said Monday morning to reporters.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said Nunes shouldn’t “prejudge” the conclusion since the committee "called no witnesses thus far, we have obtained no documents on any counter intelligence investigation and we have yet to receive any testimony from the FBI on the investigation of potential links between the Trump campaign and Russia."
During the daily press briefing Monday afternoon, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer balked at the idea of a special prosecutor to investigate Russia's alleged intervention in the 2016 election and reported ties between Trump campaign staff and Russian officials.
Spicer questioned the need for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself amid calls from Democrats and some Republicans for an outside prosecutor in the Russia probe.
"A special prosecutor for what?" Spicer said.
Trump administration officials acknowledged Friday that 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 general election cycle. 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.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions said on Monday he did not know in advance about those White House efforts.
"The FBI and the Justice Department have to remain independent, and they will do so," Sessions said. "But not every contact is improper."
Spicer said no information that he's seen or been provided would lead him to believe there was correspondence between between Trump campaign officials and Russia.
"What I'm trying to ascertain is how many people have to say there's nothing there before you realize there's nothing there?" Spicer said.
Nunes' and Spicer's comments come as questions are mounting about Congress' ability to conduct an open and bipartisan investigation.
Nunes, a vocal and early supporter of Trump, also said he’s intent on not allowing a “witch hunt” against the administration and cautioned against “McCarthyism in this place.”
The California Republican also defended speaking to a reporter to push back against news reports about connections between Russia and Trump officials.
Nunes said it was just "one reporter" that he spoke to for the White House. "All it was was a White House communications person passing a number and a name of a reporter over for me — if I would talk to them following up on what I had already told all of you in the days before that," he said.
“How is it compromised when I’m trying to be transparent with the press?” Nunes said.
Spicer said Nunes "reached out" to the White House and volunteered to talk to reporters on their behalf.
"All we sought to do was get an accurate report out," Spicer said.
Burr, Nunes' counterpart in the Senate, is also conducting an investigation into campaign staffers' communication with Russia. He, too, spoke to reporters on the Russia story.
At least two Republicans have expressed concerns, including Rep. Darrell Issa of California who called for an independent investigation.
Democrats say that Nunes is not serious about the investigation and are calling for an independent probe, something that Nunes rejects.
"The statement by Chairman Nunes today really raises questions about stonewalling in my view," said House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.