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Trump Administration Denies That It Leaned On FBI To Knock Down Russia Story


The Trump administration is offering its own version of the way that it talked with the FBI about President Trump's links to Russia. CNN reported that the White House asked the FBI to help knock down a story in the media about links between Russian officials and associates of the president. The FBI refused to do that after what was called improper contact between the FBI and the White House. The CNN story prompted angry tweets this morning from the president himself, as well as much discussion at the White House. And so we've brought in NPR's White House correspondent Scott Horsley. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: So the facts first - at least as far as we know. What did the White House do?

HORSLEY: Well, you have to remember, Steve, this is a very sensitive area for the White House - any talk about Trump and Russia. We've had the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community that Russia interfered in last year's election to help Donald Trump. Trump himself repeatedly challenged that finding. And he's fired his national security adviser over what he said in a conversation with the Russian ambassador.

There have been lots of questions about just what kind of connection there is between Donald Trump and Russia. So there was a story in The New York Times earlier this month suggesting that there had been repeated contacts between Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and others associated with the campaign and Russian intelligence officials. The administration was unhappy with that story. And CNN was reporting that they tried to enlist the FBI in pouring cold water on it.

INSKEEP: Knocking it down, as people will say.

HORSLEY: And that is the account that the White House pushed back furiously against this morning.

INSKEEP: OK. So let me understand this. According to CNN, there was this news story coming. The White House didn't like it, got on the phone with the FBI and said, hey, folks at the FBI, will you help us talk to reporters and make sure that you diminish this story in some way, steer them away from the story? And the FBI refused. What's wrong about the CNN account?

HORSLEY: And what CNN - what senior administration officials are saying today is that it was FBI officials who approached the White House and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus and said, look, that New York Times story goes far beyond what we actually know. Priebus then said, can we go out and say that this is not in accordance with what the intelligence committee is saying? He reportedly checked in with FBI Director James Comey. Comey said he didn't want to make a statement but that it would be OK for Priebus to go on television and say The New York Times story goes far beyond what the intelligence community actually knows.

INSKEEP: OK. So when I back out from that Scott, what I think I hear you saying is that the CNN story is true. But the question is how you cast it all. Was the White House pressuring the FBI to be part of a PR campaign in some fashion, or was this just a series of conversations? That's really the only dispute here.

HORSLEY: And, Steve, this is precisely why, for a long time, there have been policies in place to limit contacts between the White House and the FBI to avoid even the appearance that you are politicizing a FBI investigation. CNN, for example, points to a 2009 memo saying those kinds of contacts should be limited to personnel and to topics on both the Justice Department side and the White House side. These conversations between the chief of staff and officials at the FBI would appear to be in violation of those policies.

INSKEEP: Am I correct, though, in listening to you, Scott, that the White House has essentially confirmed this story and then argued about exactly what it means? Is that where we're standing here?

HORSLEY: They've confirmed that there were contacts. But they've disputed who initiated those contacts.

INSKEEP: And the president is unhappy. We also know that.

HORSLEY: There have been some angry tweets, not for the first time, about leaks.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks very much.

HORSLEY: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent Scott Horsley this morning. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.