Trump added that the leaks were a “criminal action, criminal act.”
The president was responding to a question from the Christian Broadcasting Network about whether he thinks that recent reports concerning Russia — that Flynn misled government officials, including now-Vice President Pence, about conversations Flynn had with the Russian ambassador involving sanctions, as well as news that members of the Trump campaign had repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials — could undermine the goal of preventing a nuclear Iran.
His response, in which he defended Flynn as a “wonderful man,” added confusion to the White House’s account of Flynn’s dismissal and conflicted with his press secretary’s assertion that Trump fired Flynn.
“People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton,” Trump said. “I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to General Flynn, the way he was treated, and the documents and papers that were illegally — I stress that — illegally leaked. Very, very unfair.”
On Tuesday, White House spokesman Sean Spicer emphasized that Trump asked Flynn to resign because he could no longer be trusted, particularly after misleading Pence about discussing with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak sanctions put in place by the Obama administration.
“The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result of this situation and a series of other questionable instances is what led the president to ask for General Flynn’s resignation,” Spicer said during his press briefing.
Spicer told reporters Wednesday afternoon that he didn’t see a need to “square” his earlier comments with the president’s praise of Flynn of earlier in the day.
“The president is very clear that Gen. Flynn has served this country, both in uniform and here, with distinction,” he said. “There’s a clear difference between his commitment to caring about this country and the trust the president had to execute those jobs.”
Trump’s comments at the news conference followed a blitz of angry tweets Wednesday morning over Flynn’s departure and what Trump said were leaks from intelligence agencies.
The direct slam against the leaks suggested deepening struggles within the Trump White House as it faces growing questions — and possible congressional probes — about how and when the president and other top officials dealt with the disclosures that Flynn conducted private outreach with Russia’s ambassador before Trump took office. Intercepts showed that Flynn discussed U.S. sanctions in a phone call with the ambassador — a conversation topic that Flynn first denied and then later said he could not recall.
Trump’s ire over the insider tips to journalists also contrasted with his indirect praise of the disclosure of leaked internal emails from the Clinton campaign made public by WikiLeaks during the lead-up to the election.
Trump tried to brush off the mounting pressures on his administration as a diversion by opponents, even though senior Republican lawmakers have indicated that investigations into Russian contacts will be expanded. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said it was “highly likely” that the events leading to Flynn’s departure would be added to a broader probe into alleged Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election.
“This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
The president was referring to recent stories by the New York Times and The Washington Post. Both outlined questionable — and potentially illegal — contact between his aides and Russia.
An article posted by the New York Times late Tuesday reported that members of his presidential campaign team, as well as other Trump associates, were repeatedly in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the campaign. And several articles by The Post reported that Flynn had misled administration officials, including Pence, about his discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States over sanctions before Trump was sworn in.
“Information is being illegally given to the failing @nytimes & @washingtonpost by the intelligence community (NSA and FBI?). Just like Russia,” Trump tweeted Wednesday.
Wednesday was not the first time he had blamed the media and the intelligence community for an unflattering portrait. Shortly before his inauguration last month, amid reports by CNN that Russia may have compiled a dossier of compromising material on him, Trump criticized leaks from the intelligence community, asking on Twitter, “Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
But he did have praise for one reporter — Eli Lake, an opinion writer for Bloomberg News — who in a column Tuesday said that Flynn was a victim of a “political assassination.” The column was not particularly flattering to Trump, but it criticized the push for Flynn’s ouster, with Lake writing that Flynn was “thrown under the bus” for his ties to Russia and for becoming “a fierce critic of the intelligence community leaders he once served with when he was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency under President Barack Obama.”
“Thank you to Eli Lake of The Bloomberg View — ‘The NSA & FBI … should not interfere in our politics … and is’ Very serious situation for USA,” Trump tweeted.
Philip Rucker and Brian Murphy contributed to this report.