White House under siege over probe into Russian contacts with Trump campaign – USA TODAY
As Donald Trumpâs scandal with Russia continues to unfold, the president is going on the defense by attacking Hillary Clinton. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@fantasticmrnate) reports.
WASHINGTON âÂ A months-long inquiry intoÂ contacts between Russian government officialsÂ and associates of President Trump’s campaign and business interests will continue despite the firing of national security adviser Michael Flynn for misleadingÂ White House officials about his communication with Russia, a U.S. official told USA TODAY on Wednesday.
The federalÂ inquiry â which has amassed intercepts of telephone calls, business records and subject interviews â is looking at how Russian officials sought to meddle in the November election,Â said the official who is not authorized to comment publicly. The officialÂ addedÂ that there was no currentÂ evidence of collusion to tilt the election.
The extent and purpose of those alleged contacts, believed to involve aÂ limited number of Trump campaign and business associates, continue to be weighed, including whether the associates were aware they were communicating with Russian intelligence officials or those working on behalf of the Russian government, the official said.Â TheNew York TimesÂ reported WednesdayÂ that phone records and intercepted calls show Trump campaign officials had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.
The White House facedÂ new questions aboutÂ links between Flynn, President Trump, his campaign and Russia, as attacks from across WashingtonÂ consumed theÂ White House and Congress. Trump even defended Flynn in a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday.
Flynn was interviewed by FBI agents following last month’s inauguration after public statements by top administration officials, including Vice President Pence, about Flynn’s pre-inaugural discussions with the Russian ambassador did not track the contents of the intercepted telephone calls. The administration officials had strongly refuted claims that Flynn had discussed sanctions imposed against Russia by the Obama administration.
The transcripts of the calls suggested otherwise, prompting then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates to alert White House counsel Donald McGahn that Flynn could be vulnerable to blackmail as a result of his misrepresentations to senior officials.
Amid theÂ renewed questions and investigations about contacts between his associates and Russia over last year’s election, Trump Wednesday denounced “conspiracy theories” about his relationship with the Russians and said “illegal” news leaks brought down Flynn.
“It’s a criminal act, and it’s been going on for a long time âÂ before me, but now it’s really going on,” Trump said during a joint news conference with Netanyahu.
Though aides said Trump demanded Flynn’s resignation Monday over lying about his talk with the Russian ambassador, the president praised his former aideÂ as “a wonderful man” who has been treated “very unfairly” by what he called the “fake media, in many cases.”
Trump’s comments came as congressional Democrats, and some Republicans, served notice that the Russia story is not going away, especially in light of Flynn’s resignationÂ and reports that Trump campaign aides had contacts with Russian operatives during an election in which Russian hackers were accused of sabotaging the Democrats.
“It is now readily apparent that Gen. Flynn’s resignation is not the end of the storyÂ but only the beginning,” said Senate Democratic leader CharlesÂ Schumer of New York.
Schumer called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia inquiry, saying the former Alabama Republican senator’s close ties to Trump and the campaign disqualified him.
During confirmation hearings last month, Sessions said he was not aware of conflicts that would force his recusal and a close aide to the attorney general said Wednesday that position had not changed. The aide, who is not authorized to speak publicly about the matter, said the attorney general’s oversight of the inquiry would be re-evaluated if developments warranted.
In a morning tweet storm, Trump denounced the media and critics over Russia.Â “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred,” Trump said. “@MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!”
Fresh off White House National Security Advisor Michael Flynnâs resignation, questions are swirling, with democratic lawmakers calling for an investigation. Nathan Rousseau Smith (@fantasticmrnate) has the story.
In another tweet, Trump accused his critics of scandal-mongering out of deference to defeated Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.Â “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign,” Trump wrote.
Trump complained about news leaks in a third tweet: “Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?).Just like Russia.”
He added,Â “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’Â like candy. Very un-American!”
While Democrats pushÂ Republican lawmakers for a more aggressive investigation of Trump and Russia, some GOP members say new reports are worth more scrutiny.
“If thereâs contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials outside the norm, thatâs not only big league bad, thatâs a game changer,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on ABC’s Good Morning America.Â Graham isÂ chairman of theÂ Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism, which is conducting an investigation into Russia and the 2016 election.
In yet another tweet, Trump contrasted his Russia policy with that of predecessor Barack Obama.
“Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?” Trump said.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, will meet Thursday with top Russian military officials in Azerbaijan to discuss âthe current state of U.S.-Russian military relations and clear military-to-military communication to prevent miscalculation and potential crises,â according to a statement from the Pentagon.
Dunfordâs meeting with the defense chiefs comes as the Pentagon deals with increasing tensions with RussiaÂ over itsÂ deployment of banned nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, Russian warplanes buzzing U.S. ships in the Black Sea and the allegations ofÂ election interference.
In calling for a stepped-up investigation of any ties between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia, Democratic lawmakers renewedÂ demands that Trump release his tax returns, saying they would show any financial relationship with Russia.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., tweeted Tuesday,Â “Your nightly reminder that at the center of this strengthening hurricane are the tax returns.”
A prominent Republican âÂ Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Foreign RelationsÂ Committee â expressed concern about the Russia story.Â “The question is whether the White House is going to be able to stabilize itself,” Corker told MSNBC’s Morning Joe.
Contributing: Tom Vanden Brook