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White House Asked FBI To Refute Reports Of Russia Contacts


The White House is trying to set the record straight about contacts between the administration and the FBI over a critical news story. A CNN report, yesterday, suggested that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to help discredit an earlier story about contacts between Trump campaign officials and Russian spies. Today, the White House pushed back hard on that CNN report.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk more. And, Scott, for a little context here, this all started with a story in The New York Times earlier this month about contacts between Russian intelligence officials and people associated with Trump's presidential campaign. Remind us the details of that report.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Audie, the Times said that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted multiple phone calls made last year between Russian intelligence officials and people who were associated with the Trump campaign, including the former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. Now, Manafort denied having any knowing contact with Russian spies. But this is a sensitive issue for the president.

Remember that U.S. intelligence community has already concluded that Russia tried to interfere in the presidential election to help Trump win. The president's been forced to fire his national security adviser because he misrepresented his contacts with the Russian ambassador. And investigators are reportedly looking into whether there are possible links between either Donald Trump or his associates and Russia. So that Times story is the kind of thing that gets a lot of attention.

CORNISH: And then fast forward to this week, CNN reports that the White House tried to get the FBI to pour cold water on the Times story and that the FBI refused. So what exactly did the White House have to say about all this?

HORSLEY: White House spokesman Sean Spicer insists it was the FBI that approached Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about the Times story, not the other way around. According to the White House, it was the deputy director of the FBI who came to Priebus and said the Times story is not accurate. The White House says that assessment was later backed up by FBI Director James Comey. But neither Comey nor his deputy wanted to go public and dispute the New York Times, so instead it fell to Priebus to go on television to say the newspaper story was not true. Priebus did that last weekend on "Fox News Sunday."


REINCE PRIEBUS: I can assure you - and I've been approved to say this - that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it's grossly overstated. And it was wrong. And there's nothing to it.

HORSLEY: The White House says Priebus got a green light from the FBI to make that statement, even though the FBI did not want to publicly challenge the Times story itself.

CORNISH: Would there be anything wrong or illegal with the White House chief of staff talking to the FBI about something like this?

HORSLEY: It would appear to run afoul of longstanding guidelines that are designed to prevent exactly the kind of controversy that's now swirling. Those guidelines have been in place for decades. The latest version was crafted in 2009 by Obama Attorney General Eric Holder. And they say when there is an ongoing investigation like this, contacts with the White House should be limited - should only involve the president, the vice president or their top lawyers - and on the Justice Department side - the attorney general or his deputy - not FBI officials, not the White House chief of staff. The whole idea is to insulate investigators from political interference or even the appearance of political interference.

CORNISH: In the meantime, anything at all from the FBI?

HORSLEY: For the record, the FBI is not commenting on this story. The fact that these conversations between the White House chief of staff and FBI officials - the fact those conversations became public has been a source of frustration at the White House. Spokesman Spicer called them troubling. And the president himself protested on Twitter this morning, saying the FBI is totally unable to stop national security leaks and can't even find leakers within the FBI itself.

CORNISH: NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.