Even if the White House is telling the truth about FBI talks, Priebus violated the rules

The administration’s version of events doesn’t deny improprieties.

Chief of Staff Reince Priebus listens while President Donald Trump speaks to reporters on Air Force One while traveling to Palm Beach International Airport on February 3. CREDIT: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

On Thursday night, CNN reported that the FBI “rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign.”

The report, which cites “multiple US officials briefed on the matter,” says White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus contacted top FBI officials and asked them “to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories.” According to CNN, FBI Director James Comey denied Priebus’ request because “the alleged communications between Trump associates and Russians known to US intelligence are the subject of an ongoing investigation.”

The report is a bombshell. It suggests that the White House interfered with an ongoing investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election. As Larry Tribe, a law professor at Harvard University, told ThinkProgress, “[I]t could well be attempted obstruction of justice, and it’s certainly so unethical that it would be a firing offense for a chief of staff in any White House that respects the rule of law.”

Federal law prohibits any communication that “endeavors to influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.”

The CNN report comes not long after Trump adviser Michael Flynn lost his job as national security adviser amid reports he lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador — communications that addressed sanctions imposed that same day by the Obama administration in response to Russian election meddling. The day after Flynn’s ouster, CNN and the New York Times broke news that the Trump campaign was in “constant contact” with Russian intelligence before the election. The U.S. intelligence community has made public its findings that Russia used cyberattacks and other methods to meddle in the presidential election on behalf of Trump.

On Friday, White House officials gave their own version of the communication between Priebus and the FBI. During an anonymous briefing, “senior administration officials” told reporters that the communication between Priebus and the FBI was actually instigated by FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe.

According to a pool report about the briefing, administration officials say McCabe told Priebus, “‘I want you to know story in NYT (in FBI investigating contacts between Trump campaign people and Russian intel) is BS.’”

More from the pool report:

Preibus [sic] asked ‘what can we do about this?’ McCabe demurs and says he’ll get back to Preibus. Preibus’… concern is he’s ‘getting crushed’ on the story. ‘What an [sic] I supposed to do?’
Later on, McCabe calls back and tells Preibus the FBI can’t say anything. ‘We’d love to help but we can’t get into the position of making statements on every story.’
Preibus asked if he could cite ‘senior intelligence officials’ as saying there’s nothing to the NYT story. McCabe says yes. Later on, FBI Director James Comey himself calls Preibus and reiterated much the same thing — story BS but can’t put out statement.

So according to the White House version, an FBI official improperly communicated with the administration during an ongoing investigation. The White House then asked the FBI to quash the story with the sort of anonymous leaks Trump has repeatedly blasted as “illegal” in recent weeks. They made that request at a time when Comey is working with the Senate Intelligence Community to investigate an election meddling effort Trump’s inner circle has been linked to.

In response to CNN’s report, Priebus claimed the White House “didn’t try to knock the story down. We asked them to tell the truth.” But the White House isn’t denying that they asked the FBI to leak favorable information regarding an ongoing investigation amid a steady stream of reports about Trump’s shady connections with Russia.

The White House version is far from exculpatory, and has legal experts — including John Dean, White House Counsel for President Nixon, who was impeached for obstruction of justice — believing that the Trump administration could be in big trouble:

Earlier this week, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, indicated she won’t blindly accept the Trump administration’s repeated denials that the president is hiding anything about his connections with Russia.

“I am confident that since this is a completely bipartisan investigation with full-time staff, that we’ll get to the bottom of this,” she said during a radio interview, adding that the intelligence committee will request that Michael Flynn testify and might subpoenaing Trump’s tax returns in hopes of shedding light on his financial dealings in Russia.

Despite being Trump’s most prominent supporter in Congress during the campaign, Attorney General Jeff Sessions hasn’t yet recused himself from the election meddling case.