The White House made a messy attempt on Sunday to control public perceptions of a widening scandal over alleged contacts between aides to Donald Trump and Russian intelligence officials during the 2016 election, alleging that the FBI had dismissed reports of such links.
The scandal has shown little sign of coming under control, with a Republican congressman calling for an independent inquiry, multiple congressional committees pursuing investigations and Trump escalating a war with the media in an apparent attempt at distraction.
While the White House has, by its own clumsy admission, been working behind the scenes to try to manage the conduct of Congress and intelligence agencies in the scandal, those efforts have so far backfired.
Contacts between the White House chief of staff, Reince Priebus, and top FBI officials have come in for particular criticism as a violation of a necessary line separating the White House from justice department investigations with potential targets inside the administration.
On Sunday, a Trump spokeswoman once again tested that line, saying the FBI had dismissed allegations of inappropriate Trump-Russia ties as “BS” – bullshit.
“The FBI has already said this story is BS,” Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on ABC’s This Week. “Those were their words, so I apologize to my mom. But literally those are the words of the FBI, that the story is BS.”
The FBI has in fact made no public comment on its investigation into alleged contact between Trump associates and Russian operatives, which was first reported two weeks ago by the New York Times and CNN, citing anonymous law enforcement and intelligence community sources. The labelling of the story as “BS” has been attributed to the FBI’s deputy director, Andrew McCabe, by anonymous administration officials.
The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, has confirmed that Priebus had asked top FBI officials to publicly debunk the matter, which they declined to do.
Under fire, Trump has lashed out on two fronts. The president attacked the intelligence community over the story, warning that the sources of the leaks that fed the news reports would be punished. But he saved his sharpest attacks for the media, which he called “enemies of the people” in a speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.