Donald Trump says the press is lying about him and Russia. In a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference on Friday, Trump dismissed all reports linking Russia to him, his associates, or his business interests as “fake.” But Trump isn’t just pitting his credibility against the media’s. The White House is now claiming that the FBI is on Trump’s side. Is that true?
Trump has a record of lying about Russia. “I have nothing to do with Russia,” he asserted at a Feb. 16 press conference. “I have no anything. … Don’t speak to people from Russia.” But last spring, the Wall Street Journal reported that Trump “warmly greeted” Russia’s U.S. ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, at a private reception just before proposing bilateral reconciliation. In November, Russia’s deputy foreign minister confirmed that “there were contacts” between Russia and Trump’s team during the campaign. And at a real estate conference in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. said of the Trump Organization: “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.”
Trump’s aides also have a record of bogus denials. Last month, Vice President–elect Mike Pence, incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, and incoming White House press secretary Sean Spicer insisted that Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser in waiting, hadn’t discussed any penalties or sanctions in a Dec. 29 conversation Flynn had with Kislyak. The Washington Post, in a Feb. 9 article citing “nine current and former officials,” said Flynn had. Thanks to surveillance, we now know that those officials and the Post, not the White House, were correct.
This time, the White House swears that Trump is right and the press is wrong. The dispute centers on a Feb. 14 New York Times story. According to the article, “members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election.” The Times based its report on “phone records and intercepted calls” collected by “intelligence and law enforcement agencies,” as described by “four current and former American officials.”
At his Feb. 16 news conference, Trump dismissed all reports of contacts between his people and Russia. “It’s all fake news,” he said. “The whole Russian thing—that’s a ruse.” Trump claimed personal knowledge. Ordinary citizens “don’t know if it’s true or false because they're not involved,” he told the press. “But I’m involved. So I know when you’re telling the truth or when you’re not.”
On Sunday, Priebus went further. He claimed not just personal knowledge, but authority from the FBI to say that nothing in the Times story was true. On Meet the Press, he said of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation:
The report will say there’s nothing there. I know what [senators] were told by the FBI, because I’ve talked to the FBI. I know what they’re saying. I wouldn’t be on your show right now telling you that we’ve been assured that there's nothing to the New York Times story if I actually wasn’t assured—and, by the way, if I didn’t actually have clearance to make this comment. I’m not a sloppy guy.
On Fox News Sunday, Priebus added: “I have 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.” Priebus refused to name his sources. “I can’t tell you that,” he said. But he hinted: “When I say top-level people, I mean top-level people, OK?”
In these interviews, Priebus didn’t just dispute details of the Times report. He didn’t argue that it had been misread to imply evidence of collusion. He claimed that he had approval from the FBI and the intelligence community to deny the Times story in its entirety. And five days later, according to the Associated Press, the White House told reporters that FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe and director James Comey “gave Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly.”
Is that true? Did Comey and McCabe authorize Priebus to dismiss the Times story? Or is Priebus misrepresenting what they said?
The conversations between Priebus, McCabe, and Comey have taken center stage because of Thursday’s CNN report, which gave the impression that the White House had pressured the FBI to denounce the Times story. Trump’s team disputes this account, arguing that the initiative came from the FBI. The White House claims that on the morning after the Times published its story, FBI officials—apparently McCabe—told Priebus that the Times story was false. Priebus then asked the FBI to state publicly, or at least tell reporters on background, that “there had been no contacts” between Russia and the Trump people. The FBI refused.
Preliminary signs suggest Priebus is fudging what the FBI told him about the Times story. On Meet the Press, Priebus alluded to Comey’s Feb. 17 briefing of the Senate Intelligence Committee—“I know what the intelligence committees in the House and the Senate were told by the FBI”—to support his categorical dismissal of the Times story. Sen. Angus King, who was at the briefing, responded that he was “surprised” Priebus chose to be “that categorical.” And other public officials who contacted reporters to shoot down the Times story on behalf of the White House weren’t nearly as absolute. According to the Post, “The officials broadly dismissed Trump associates’ contacts with Russia as infrequent and inconsequential. But the officials would not answer substantive questions about the issue.”
The FBI has declined to comment on any of these reports, including the original Times story and Priebus’ assertions of FBI support. In theory, this keeps the bureau apolitical. In practice, it lets Trump continue to lie without being directly exposed. In his speech to CPAC on Friday, Trump said of news organizations that publish critical stories:
They are the enemy of the people. Because they have no sources, they just make them up when there are none. I saw one story recently where they said nine people have confirmed. There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people. … Because I know the people. I know who they talked to. There were no nine people. … They make up sources. They are very dishonest people.
That’s clearly a shot at the Feb. 9 Post story about Flynn talking sanctions with Russia. Trump is claiming direct knowledge that the Post’s alleged sources didn’t say what the paper attributed to them. And Priebus, with similar bravado, is claiming not just that McCabe found the Times report too dramatic, but that the FBI gave Priebus its blessing to go on TV and say that the whole article was untrue.
It’s one thing for the FBI to withhold comment on the substance of an ongoing investigation. It’s another thing to lie low as the White House politicizes the bureau by misrepresenting what its leaders said or authorized in private. Comey and McCabe don't need to investigate whether they gave Priebus the carte blanche he claims. They know. They just need to tell us.