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White House contacts with FBI take Russia scandal in new direction

Members of Donald Trump's team are facing an FBI investigation, and top White House officials spoke to bureau leaders about the probe.
Image: FILE PHOTO: Trump speaking by phone with Putin in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington
FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump (L-R), joined by Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, Vice President Mike Pence, senior advisor Steve Bannon,...

The discussions between the White House and the bureau began with FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after the stories were published, according to a US law enforcement official.The White House initially disputed that account, saying that McCabe called Priebus early that morning and said The New York Times story vastly overstates what the FBI knows about the contacts. But a White House official later corrected their version of events to confirm what the law enforcement official described.The same White House official said that Priebus later reached out again to McCabe and to FBI Director James Comey asking for the FBI to at least talk to reporters on background to dispute the stories.

Overnight, the West Wing didn't exactly deny the outreach to the FBI, but rather, tried to put as benign a spin on the developments as possible. "We didn't try to knock the story down," White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said. "We asked them to tell the truth."We now know, of course, that the FBI rebuffed the White House's requests and officials at the bureau said nothing about the underlying allegations. The trouble, however, is that the White House reaching out to the FBI at all has the potential to be a scandal unto itself.To borrow Watergate framing, it shifts the focus to the "cover-up" instead of the "crime."This isn't complicated: members of Team Trump are facing a federal investigation, and there are rules in place that severely limit the communications between the FBI and the White House. Reince Priebus, apparently, either didn't know or didn't care about those restrictions -- which in turn raises questions about possible obstruction and interference with an ongoing FBI probe.Indeed, let's not forget that Priebus himself, as recently as Sunday, publicly confirmed that the White House had spoken with the FBI leadership about some aspects of the investigation into the Russia scandal.

The first thing to note was [White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus'] answer to a question from NBC's Chuck Todd: "Did [National Security Advisor Michael Flynn] mislead the FBI or lie to the FBI" when agents interviewed him on January 23 about his telephone conversations last December 28 and 29 with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak?"I'm just not in the position to answer it," Priebus said, but then he added, "Certainly we've talked about that issue with leadership at the FBI, but I'm not in a position to talk about that with you."That raises the question: What are the conflicts of interest involved with the White House talking with "FBI leadership" about whether a senior White House official "misled" or "lied" to agents? If Flynn lied to FBI agents, that could be a felony.  Who from the White House, talked to whom at the FBI, about what?Priebus went on to say, "We have talked about this. I think we've laid it out very clearly and now it's up to the [Department of Justice] and the FBI to take it any further, if that's what they do." What did the White House lay out "very clearly"?

These questions are growing louder by the day.