Donald Trump may want to improve his image during his current trip to the Middle East, but he can't completely escape the ongoing controversy back home. On Tuesday, severalreports claimed Trump attempted to persuade two of the highest-ranking U.S. intelligence officials to publicly deny that there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.
First reported by the Washington Post late Monday, the story has since been backed up by CNN, which also cites current and former officials with knowledge of the phone calls. The reports claim Trump separately contacted the Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers in March, with both men refusing to comply with the requests, which they are said to have found inappropriate.
The calls to Rogers and Coats came just days after then-FBI director James Comey confirmed to Congress that his agency was investigating any possible collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.
According to the Post, Rogers was floored by the phone call, which also included a request to put pressure on Comey to drop the investigation. The call was highly unusual given that national security agencies are supposed to be insulated from partisan issues. The reports suggest Trump was asking Coats and Rogers to comment on an ongoing investigation, and calling on them to say something they could not know to be true.
In a statement responding to the latest allegations, an unnamed White House spokesman said: "The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals. The president will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people."
On May 17, the Department of Justice appointed former FBI head Robert Mueller as special counsel to oversee the Russian investigation. The Post reports that the call to Rogers by Trump was recorded in internal memos that could now be made available to the special counsel.
Trump has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and has called the congressional and FBI investigations "a witch hunt."
This revelation is the latest in a series of reported attempts by the Trump administration to influence the controversial investigation:
- Prior to contacting Coats and Rogers, Trump had also personally urged Comey to drop his investigation, according to a contemporaneous memo written by the former FBI chief about a meeting in the Oval Office. "I hope you can let this go," the president allegedly told Comey.
- When that didn't work, Trump fired Comey, with the White House initially citing a recommendation from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as the reason for the move. However, Trump undermined that official response in an interview with NBC's Lester Holt the next day when he said, "Regardless of [the] recommendation, I was going to fire Comey. Knowing there was no good time to do it." He then went on to specifically cite the Russian investigation as the basis for his decision.
- As far back as February, CNN reported that the Trump campaign had urged the FBI to come out publicly and push back against reports of collusion between Trump's campaign and Russia — something the FBI refused to do.