The Trump Administration tried to have it both ways on questions about Russian attempts to influence the election Monday.
Speaking to reporters at a regular briefing, White House spokesman Sean Spicer crowed that there has been no publicly released evidence that links the Trump campaign and its allies to the Russian government.
But faced with the same lack of public proof to back up Trump’s claim his phones were tapped, Spicer demurred, saying it was too soon to rule it out.
The briefing came as FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers were testifying before Congress, confirming for the first time that the FBI is investigating Russian meddling.
Trump himself had already set the stage on Twitter, accusing Democrats of fabricating the “Russian story” and creating “fake news” about him.
Spicer followed that line of argument in the briefing.
“It’s clear that nothing has changed,” he said of Monday’s hearing. “Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion. The Obama CIA Director said so, Obama’s Director of National Intelligence said so, and we take them at their word.”
Spicer went on to quote Obama appointees and Democratic lawmakers who maintained there was no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump team.
But pressed on the President’s allegations that his predecessor had ordered a wire tap against him, the White House spokesman struck a markedly different tune.
“There is a lot more to come,” he said, arguing Trump would ultimately be proven correct, despite both Comey and Rogers saying they had no evidence to back Trump’s claims—in sharp contrast to repeated refusals to comment on proof of links between Trump’s allies and the Russians.
Asked if Trump would apologize to Obama, Spicer replied the president would not. “No,” he said. “We started a hearing. This is still ongoing.”
Spicer’s contradictory responses came amid an afternoon of cherry-picked comments from the hearing highlighted by Trump and the White House. In a series of tweets, Trump’s @POTUS account posted a video clip of selected moments from the intelligence officials’ testimony, including Rogers and Comey denying that any votes had been manipulated by Russian hacking. Rogers specifically said he was focused on foreign intelligence and not voting machines in swing districts, and could not speak to specific states’ electoral results.
“The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process,” Trump tweeted in celebration, though that was never the conclusion reached by either agency. More than an hour later Comey rebutted the president’s tweet, saying the intelligence community never reached a conclusion on whether Russian interference could have swayed votes in the close election. “We didnt opine on it,” the FBI director stated.
Trump and the White House also sought to deflect the pressure onto Obama and his former aides, accusing them of being behind several recent leaks of classified information, including the revelation that former Trump National Security Advisor Mike Flynn was overheard on an intercept discussing Russia sanctions with the Russian Ambassador to the U.S. during the presidential transition. Flynn’s failure to disclose that to the Vice President led to his firing last month.
But the White House continued to express surprise that Flynn’s name was leaked—the names of U.S. persons caught on foreign wire taps are supposed to be closely guarded. Trump tweeted out his frustration last month calling for the leakers to be found, and Monday noted that Comey refused to deny that he briefed then-President Obama on Flynn’s call with the Russian Ambassador.
It was just another example of selective interpretation by the White House.
“Please don’t draw any conclusions from the fact that I may not be able to comment on certain topics,” Comey stated during his opening statement. “I know speculating is part of human nature, but it really isn’t fair to draw conclusions simply because I say that I can’t comment.”