This past week the White House launched a coordinated assault on the media to cover up a growing set of scandals threatening its authority as well as its future. According to a report in the Washington Post on Friday, the White House asked senior intelligence officials and members of Congress to call news outlets to dismiss stories about numerous contacts between members of Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence agents during the 2016 campaign.
The administration, of course, is still trying to quiet another major scandal involving Gen. Michael Flynn who was forced to resign as Trump’s national security adviser after he was caught lying to the FBI and Vice President Mike Pence about his communications with the Russian ambassador in December, prior to Trump taking office.
Republican Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) — who at the start of his committee’s probe into Russian cyberattacks just weeks ago vowed to go “everywhere the intelligence tells us to go” — confirmed that he was one of several officials asked by the White House to dismiss the Trump team’s contacts with Russia as inconsequential.
“I’ve had those conversations,” Burr told WaPo, adding, “I felt I had something to share that didn’t breach my responsibilities to the committee in an ongoing investigation.”
The Republican Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee David Nunes confirmed that he’d also been asked to speak to reporters to challenge these news stories, reports WaPo, adding that he’d already been in touch with several reporters.
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer on Friday admitted that the White House had asked officials to challenge the reporting but downplayed the request by saying they’d simply pointed reporters to other sources who would “corroborate the FBI’s version of the story.”
“Undertaking a massive cover-up for a crime that has yet to actually be described in detail certainly makes you think the crime is real & big,” tweeted David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy magazine.
What is the FBI’s version of the story? It is impossible to say precisely at this point because they have refused to comment publicly on this “ongoing investigation.” What the White House would like us to believe is that the FBI thinks the recent reports from The New York Times and CNN—both of which allege that Trump aides were in constant contact with senior Russian officials during the campaign—are inaccurate.
Last Sunday, Chief of Staff Reince Priebus immediately took to television to aggressively denounce these reports as false, adding that he had, in fact, “talked to top levels of the intelligence community.” On Friday, top administration officials told reporters that FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe first pulled Priebus aside during an early morning meeting on Feb. 15 at the White House to tell him that the Times report was “garbage.” The FBI will not say whether it ever contacted the White House about the veracity of the Times report.
Then news hit on Thursday that Priebus had asked the FBI to knock down these Trump-Russia reports publicly—essentially pressuring the FBI to make public statements about a pending investigation of the president and his advisers.
Democrats were quick to point out that the Priebus-McCabe conversation violated longstanding traditions (instituted after the Watergate scandal) meant to ensure the FBI’s independence from the executive branch and to prevent the White House from exerting influence over a criminal investigation, most importantly, of itself.
The White House request simultaneously threatens the independence of the FBI and undermines the credibility of ongoing congressional probes in the House and Senate. The breach is so bad that even Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), appearing on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” called for a special prosecutor to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election, echoing concerns of congressional Democrats who insist that U.S Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a Trump appointee and surrogate, must recuse himself and his deputies from any such inquiries.
Rep. Issa—who conducted his own lengthy investigation into the deadly 2012 siege in Benghazi, Libya, when he was chairman of the House Oversight Committee—admitted that AG Sessions could not be impartial.
As Rothkopf succinctly tweeted: “the Russia cover-up story and the media lock-out story are the same story.” The disclosures on Friday about White House interference in ongoing investigations in conjunction with intensified attacks on the media by President Trump and his staff only raise more serious questions about the role of the Trump campaign, transition team and now the Trump administration in the Russian cyberattacks on the DNC and efforts to swing the presidential election in Trump’s favor.
The White House’s most recent effort to enlist top intelligence officials and members of Congress in its cover-up—most stunningly the Republican chairmen of the House and Senate committees charged with investigating Russian interference and the possible involvement of Trump’s aides—casts serious doubt on the ability of any GOP-led investigation, in the House or Senate, to uncover the truth. Likewise, Priebus’s improper communications with the FBI raise question’s about the agency’s impartiality and its commitment to uncovering the truth about the most dangerous attack on American democracy in modern history.
“To me, the question might finally come down to this,” Celeste Wallander, President Obama’s senior adviser on Russia, told the New Yorker. “Will Putin expose the failings of American democracy or will he inadvertently expose the strength of American democracy?”
The jig is up. It is time to demand Republican leaders in Congress join Democrats in calling for a full, bipartisan investigation—independent of Congress and the White House—into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia. It is time for the party in the majority to draw on and exhibit the strengths of American democracy in the face of unprecedented cyberattacks on our electoral system and the integrity of our democracy. House Democrats have a bill to impanel an independent bipartisan commission ready and waiting. It is called the Protecting Our Democracy Act.
– Danielle Bizzarro