Two senior administration officials on Friday vehemently argued that White House officials acted appropriately in asking the FBI to publicly knock down media reports about communications between President Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence.
The White House was reacting to CNN’s exclusive reporting that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to say the reports were wrong after Deputy Director Andrew McCabe told Priebus some of the coverage was inaccurate. The White House Friday said both McCabe and FBI Director James Comey in a separate conversation rejected that request, multiple US officials briefed on the matter told CNN.
The senior administration officials who gathered reporters Friday morning to defend the White House request to the FBI confirmed that Priebus spoke with both McCabe and Comey about the reports of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russians known to US intelligence. But the officials said Priebus didn’t initiate the conversation with McCabe that sparked the request to knock down the story. Rather, the officials said McCabe “asked for five minutes alone” and called the reports “BS.”
The senior administration officials said Priebus expressed his concern to McCabe that Priebus was “getting crushed” on the story and asked him, “What am I supposed to do?” McCabe then called Priebus to say the FBI could not comment on the reports.
The officials said that Comey later called Priebus to echo McCabe’s message, that he believed the story to be inaccurate, but that the FBI could not “get into the position of making statements on every story.”
A source close to Trump said Friday there is consternation within the White House about the conversations between Priebus and the FBI.
“This is the type of distraction the President doesn’t need right now,” the source said, adding that Trump is trying to focus on his agenda items and has grown frustrated by all of the staff stories.
The timeline the White House officials offered Friday did not differ substantially from the account an official offered Thursday night.
The direct communications between the White House and the FBI were unusual because of decade-old restrictions on such contacts. Such a request from the White House is a violation of procedures that limit communications with the FBI on pending investigations.
“We didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told CNN late Thursday night, objecting to CNN’s characterization of the White House’s request.
The senior administration officials denied that the White House was attempting to exert pressure on the FBI, insisting the White House was not discussing a pending investigation, simply the news story.
The White House’s pushback raised questions about its criticism of the leaks that have plagued President Donald Trump’s administration.
Trump and top White House officials have condemned the use of anonymous sources in a slew of damaging reports about the Trump administration.
Trump on Friday morning tweeted that “the FBI is totally unable to stop the national security ‘leakers’ that have permeated our government for a long time” and said leaks of classified information “could have a devastating effect on US.”
But in pushing back on CNN’s reporting Friday morning, two senior administration officials said Priebus had asked top FBI officials to brief reporters on background, or anonymously, after the FBI refused requests to publicly knock down the reports of contacts between Trump advisers and Russians known to US intelligence.
And when that request was also denied, Priebus asked if he could cite “senior intelligence officials” in pushing back on the story himself in TV interviews last Sunday – which he did. Comey and McCabe both agreed to that request, telling Priebus he could say he was briefed by officials.
The senior administration officials on Friday revealed the identity of those officials as McCabe and Comey, claiming that both privately called the reports about contacts inaccurate.
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Sara Murray contributed to this report.