CNN reported Thursday that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI’s top two officials, Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and Director James Comey, to say the media reports were wrong after McCabe told Priebus some of the coverage was inaccurate. Comey and McCabe rejected that request, multiple US officials briefed on the matter told CNN.
The reports of the contacts were first published by The New York Times and CNN on February 14.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called Priebus’ reported behavior “an outrageous breach of the FBI’s independence.”
“The Trump White House has been caught trying to pressure the FBI into undermining a vital national security investigation into the explosive ties between senior Trump officials and Russian intelligence agents, an action which is in violation of Department of Justice rules and which may also be illegal,” Pelosi said in a statement.
“Political interference in the integrity of an FBI investigation into the conduct of White House officials is a grave abuse of power. The rule of law depends on the FBI’s complete independence, free from political pressure from the targets of its investigations,” she added.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, called on Attorney General Jeff Sessions to recuse himself from the probe.
“The FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s connection with Russia should and must be free from politics,” Harris tweeted. “The FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s connection with Russia should and must be free from politics.”
Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania tweeted that it was “deeply disturbing” that the White House would try to meddle in an FBI investigation.
“The notion that @POTUS Admin would call @FBI & ask them to publicly downplay an ongoing investigation into Russia ties is deeply disturbing,” he said.
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.
The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with McCabe and Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a US law enforcement official.
The White House initially disputed that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts.
But a White House official later corrected their version of events to confirm what the law enforcement official described.
At a briefing last week on Capitol Hill, Comey did not categorically dismiss the existence of any communications between Russians and Trump advisers, a congressional source told CNN. The FBI is still investigating the significance of these contacts. However, Comey did take issue with the Times’ characterization of those communications as involving “Russian intelligence.”
Also, according to the source, investigators are still trying to establish if and how the Russians involved in these communications with Trump advisers are tied to Kremlin.
CNN’s Jim Sciutto, Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz, Manu Raju, Pamela Brown and Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.