CNN REPORTED Thursday that White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked a top FBI official “to publicly knock down” stories about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia, raising concerns that procedures meant to isolate FBI investigations from political influence had been violated. The White House responded by releasing its own narrative — but even its version of events contains ample reason for alarm.
The story begins with a Feb. 14 New York Times report that federal investigators had evidence of “repeated” contact between associates of Donald Trump and “senior Russian intelligence officials” during the presidential campaign. The following Sunday, Mr. Priebus called the article “garbage,” blasted the media’s use of anonymous sources and insisted that “the top levels of the intelligence community” told him that the reporting was wrong.
According to this week’s revelations, those top-level sources were FBI Director James B. Comey and FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe. Per White House accounts, as detailed by NBC and CNN, Mr. McCabe approached Mr. Priebus after the Times article emerged, telling him that it was overblown. Mr. Priebus then asked Mr. McCabe if the FBI would say so. Following that, both Mr. McCabe and Mr. Comey separately called Mr. Priebus and declined to undermine the Times article, because, according to the White House, “the FBI did not want to get in the business of calling balls and strikes on reporting.” Instead, Mr. Priebus took to the airwaves on his own, citing Mr. Comey and Mr. McCabe anonymously. According to a Post report that broke Friday evening, the White House also persuaded key intelligence officials to call news organizations in order to counter the Times article after the FBI expressed reluctance to get involved.
NBC cited federal officials who say that the Times article may have been wrong in its assertion that Trump associates had been in contact with people known to be Russian intelligence officers — but not in the core finding that Trump associates had been in touch with Russians not confirmed to be spies.
Whether the McCabe-Priebus interaction was merely an episode of a senior FBI official attempting to ingratiate himself with the new administration, or of an embattled White House chief of staff asking the FBI to help him with a public relations problem, it looks bad. The Justice Department issued guidelines in 2007 and 2009 limiting contact between the White House and federal investigative entities, based on the uncontroversial notion that justice should be administered free of political interference. The principle of separation that these rules represent should be honored with particular care when communications might relate to an investigation of the president or his circle. Mr. Priebus and Mr. McCabe were not merely discussing a news article they thought to be dubious — they were in effect discussing what kind of evidence the FBI may or may not have and how senior FBI officials feel about some aspects of the case.
Particularly with anxiety running high about Russian interference in U.S. politics, both Mr. McCabe and Mr. Priebus should have known better. Going forward, Attorney General Jeff Sessions should show more sensitivity, as well. Given that Mr. Sessions was so close to the Trump campaign, he should immediately recuse himself from any decision-making relating to any investigation of the election and Russia.
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