White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus said Sunday that President Donald Trump’s administration doesn’t know of any contact between the campaign and Russian intelligence officials before the election, but he could not give a definitive reassurance that there was actually no communication.
“We don’t know of any contacts with Russian agents,” Priebus said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
Last week, The New York Times and other outlets reported that Trump campaign aides and other Trump associates had “repeated” and “constant” contact with Russian officials during the election. U.S. intelligence officials based their assessment on phone records and intercepted calls. It’s not clear, however, whether there was any collusion on Russia interfering in the U.S. election to benefit Trump.
“I mean, we’ve spent days talking about a story that says that our campaign had constant contacts with Russian spies. And I can tell you, I’ve talked to the top levels of the intelligence community. And they’ve assured me that that New York Times story was grossly overstated, and inaccurate and totally wrong,” Priebus said Sunday.
“It is this sort of fake news stuff that is enormously important that, when you get a front page story of The New York Times without a single source on the record saying that your campaign had constant contact ― they didn’t say one contact. They didn’t say two contacts. It doesn’t matter. We have not been informed of even that,” he added.
“We have not been informed” is a significant hedge from what the Trump team was saying as recently as last month. On Jan. 15, shortly before Trump took office, Vice President Mike Pence repeatedly said on television that there were zero contacts between the campaign and Russian officials.
“Just to button up one question, did any adviser or anybody in the Trump campaign have any contact with the Russians who were trying to meddle in the election?” CBS’s “Face the Nation” host John Dickerson asked.
“Of course not,” Pence replied.
Pence also answered “of course not” when asked a similar question that day by “Fox News Sunday” host Chris Wallace, adding, “All the contact by the Trump campaign and associates were with the American people.”
Trump himself also denied these interactions, according to NBC News on Jan. 11:
Trump did not specifically address questions regarding whether members of his staff were in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. When NBC News repeated that question to Trump afterwards as the president-elect approached the elevator to exit the room, he answered “No.”
On Tuesday, before The New York Times came out with its report, White House press secretary Sean Spicer also stood by those earlier statements: “There’s nothing that would conclude me that anything different has changed with respect to that time period.”
But last week during his press conference, Trump himself also hedged a bit. When asked if his team had contact with Russian officials during the campaign, he said, “Nobody that I know of.” He refused to give a definitive answer when pressed, simply saying, “Russia is a ruse.”
Michael Flynn recently stepped down as Trump’s national security adviser after news reports revealed that he had discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador before the inauguration, while President Barack Obama was in the middle of implementing U.S. punishment on Russia for interference in the election. The Trump administration had also denied that Flynn had ever discussed the issue with Russian officials.
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