President Donald Trump insisted Thursday that neither he nor his campaign team had contacts with Russian officials in the run-up to last year’s US election, contradicting an explosive report which he blasted as “fake news.”
Trump also defended Michael Flynn, the national security advisor whose resignation he demanded and received this week, saying Flynn “wasn’t wrong” for holding pre-inauguration phone calls with the Russian ambassador about US sanctions policy.
Instead, Trump accused members of the US intelligence community of breaking the law by leaking information about the calls.
The new president, in the midst of a turbulent week of back-and-forth accusations about contacts with Russia and his battle with the intelligence community, addressed the concerns during an extraordinary White House press conference.
Asked whether he or anyone on his staff had engaged in contacts with Russia prior to the election, Trump proclaimed: “No. Nobody that I know of.”
“I have nothing to do with Russia,” Trump said. “The whole Russia thing is a ruse.”
It was a full-throated denunciation of a bombshell report by the New York Times which said that intercepted calls and phone records show Trump aides were in repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials well before the US elections.
“They weren’t in Russia. They never made a phone call to Russia. They never received a phone call. It’s all fake news,” Trump said.
Trump stressed that the story centered instead on inappropriate action by US intelligence agencies, as he stepped up his earlier Thursday attacks in which he vowed to catch “low-life leakers” of potentially classified information that led to the ouster of his national security advisor.
“The leaks are real. The news is fake,” he declared.
– Billionaire’s review? –
“Those are criminal leaks” by people angry about Democrat Hillary Clinton’s loss, he later told reporters. “I think you’ll see it stopping because now we have our people in.”
The latest salvoes came amid reports that Trump plans to name New York billionaire Stephen Feinberg to lead a sweeping review of US intelligence agencies, raising fears of a bid to curtail their independence.
Trump decried Flynn’s treatment at a news conference Wednesday despite having fired the retired general for deceiving Vice President Mike Pence about his contacts with Russia’s ambassador.
Earlier, he pointed the finger at the National Security Agency, which conducts electronic surveillance, and the FBI, which handles counter-intelligence probes, as possible sources of the leaks.
But the drumbeat of revelations has infuriated Democrats and alarmed Republican leaders, wary of Trump’s overtures toward Russia.
“It is a cloud over the White House,” Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican hawk who has called for in-depth investigations, said Wednesday.
Trump’s repeated attacks on the intelligence community alarmed Democrats.
“That news conference was a 1 hour, 17 minute argument for why this Congress needs to start taking its oversight role much more seriously,” House Democrat Mark Takano tweeted.
Trump’s stance on leaks has flipped since last year’s presidential campaign when he dismissed as a “joke” charges that Russia was behind damaging leaks of hacked Clinton campaign emails.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said at a news conference in Florida last July.
By January, US intelligence had concluded that those leaks were part of a wider campaign ordered by President Vladimir Putin to try to tilt the election in Trump’s favor. Moscow denies any involvement.
– Mutual distrust –
A sense of mutual distrust has now pervaded the president’s relationship with the intelligence community.
As president-elect, Trump ruffled feathers by giving short shrift to his daily intelligence briefings, and outraged the CIA director by likening the intelligence agencies to Nazi Germany after the leak of a dossier that made unsubstantiated claims that Russia held compromising information on Trump.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that US intelligence officials have withheld from Trump sensitive information on sources and methods because of concerns it could be leaked or compromised.
Trump called the report “disgraceful” and baseless.
The Times said the planned intelligence review by Feinberg, a co-founder of Cerberus Capital Management who has no national security experience, was seen as a way of injecting a Trump loyalist into the intelligence community.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has moved gingerly on Russia, sending top officials to Europe to reassure NATO allies while making its opening official contacts with the Russians.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in Bonn, and said Washington is prepared to work with Russia “when we can find practical areas of cooperation.”
In Brussels, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the Pentagon was not ready “right now” for military cooperation with Moscow “but our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward.”
Putin, meanwhile, called for Russian intelligence agencies to bolster their cooperation with the Americans in the fight against terrorism.