Trump asked DNI, NSA to deny evidence of Russia collusion
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump asked two of the government’s top intelligence chiefs to publicly deny evidence of cooperation between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, multiple current and former US officials confirmed to CNN Monday.
Trump spoke to Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers after then-FBI Director James Comey revealed in March that the bureau had launched a probe into alleged collusion.
Both Coats and Rogers were uncomfortable with the nature of the President’s request and refused to comply, the sources with knowledge of the situation told CNN.
The revelations deepen the intrigue over alleged links between Trump’s campaign and Russia, and follow the President’s firing of Comey and subsequent statement he sacked him because of the Russia probe.
Trump, on first major trip abroad as President, has sought to shake off the damaging political blowback from the drama, exacerbated by the appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller last week.
The President’s treatment of Comey has raised questions about whether he abused his powers by seeking to discredit the FBI investigation or risked giving the impression that he was obstructing justice, a debate now given new life by the latest revelations.
The White House declined to comment on the details of Trump’s contacts with Rogers and Coats, which were first reported by The Washington Post.
“The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals,” said a White House spokesperson who declined to be named. “The President will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people.”
But Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, warned that the latest reports represent “yet another disturbing allegation that the President was interfering in the FBI probe.”
“If further reports are accurate that White House staff also tried to persuade personnel at these agencies to help get FBI Director Comey to back off an investigation involving Michael Flynn, the specter of possible obstruction has grown larger and more troubling.”
CNN reported in February that the White House had asked the FBI to push back against stories in the press about potential coordination between Trump associates and Russia.
Comey revealed in a hearing before the House intelligence committee on March 20 that the FBI was looking for any links between Trump campaign aides and Russia and whether there was coordination between the two sides.
Supporters of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton believe that the publishing by Wikileaks of emails hacked from her campaign servers helped contribute to her defeat in November. A US intelligence community report in January said Russian intelligence was behind the hacks, staged to undermine confidence in US democracy. The report said Moscow eventually developed a preference for Trump.
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, and railed against the investigations into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia.
The Post story said a record of Trump’s request to Rogers was detailed in a memo from a senior NSA official — and that memo, as well as any that may be from the DNI’s office, would be available to Mueller, the former FBI director now heading the Justice Department’s investigation.
A source told CNN that Mueller had been briefed on memos Comey had written about his interactions with Trump, including his recollection of the President asking the FBI to end its probe into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Congressional investigators have requested copies of Comey’s memos and testimony from the former FBI chief himself.
One source added that part of Mueller’s investigation is expected to focus on obstruction of justice. In that case, Comey would be a witness and Mueller will likely interview him as part of the probe.
Potentially complicating that effort is Comey’s acceptance to testify on Capitol Hill after Memorial Day. The source says Comey likely will be limited in what he can say now that the Russia probe is in the hands of Mueller.
“There’s no way in the world Mueller wants his witness testifying,” the source said. “He wants to question him before anyone else does but before that he’ll have to go through tons of documents.”
Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, wrote on Twitter on Monday that Comey now wanted to speak to Mueller before he gives public testimony and that a hearing scheduled for Wednesday next week had been postponed.
Both Coats and Rogers are scheduled to appear before Congress this week, but not before either the House or Senate intelligence committees, which have separate investigations into Russian meddling in the election.
The Senate Armed Services Committee scheduled a hearing with Coats, and the House Armed Services Committee has one with Rogers.
West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat on the Senate intelligence committee, said on CNN’s “Erin Burnett OutFront” that he was as “shocked as anybody else” upon hearing the news and noted Coats and Rogers had appeared before the panel earlier this month.
“Might be good to get them back,” Manchin said.