WASHINGTON – Sean Spicer didn’t directly accuse the New York Times of running a fake news story about contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials before the election.
But the White House press secretary made it clear that’s exactly what he was doing.
In fact, Spicer said the FBI had called the story “B.S.”
So, when he was grilled by a network news reporter as to whether a special prosecutor should investigate, an incredulous Spicer shot back with, “I guess my question would be, ‘A special prosecutor for what?'”
ABC’s Jonathan Karl pressed on, “To look into the whole Russian connection.”
But Spicer was having none of it.
With more than a trace of frustration, he recounted how, “We’ve heard the same people, the same anecdotes, and we’ve heard reports over and over again,” and nothing new or newsworthy had emerged.
He noted the question of Russian influence has been investigated by intelligence agencies, the House and the Senate, and yet nothing had come of it other than the original unsubstantiated allegations by unnamed sources.
And all of the sources to whom the White House referred reporters had also confirmed the story was not true.
And there had been nothing new reported for months. Except that the FBI had said the New York Times story was not true.
Karl had begun his grilling with a veiled accusation, which Spicer, although polite, clearly did not care for.
The ABC reporter asked if a report out that morning was true: “Did you directly contact CIA Director Pompeo asking him to knock down the New York Times story on the Russia connection?”
Spicer recounted how this story had begun with the FBI coming to the White House, not the other way round.
“The FBI deputy director (Andrew McCabe) was here at a meeting at the White House that morning. After the meeting concluded, he asked the chief of staff (Reince Priebus) to stand back a second, and he wanted to tell him that the report in the New York Times was quote, ‘B.S.'”
According to Spicer, Priebus asked McCabe, “Can we let other people know the story is not accurate?” Spicer said the FBI ultimately decided it did not want to get into the “process of knocking down every story that they had issues with.”
So, instead, when the White House got inquiries from reporters asking whether the Times story was true, the press secretary said his office pointed them to “subject matter experts” who understood whether or not that story was accurate.
“I will say,” Spicer added, “that I think we did our job very effectively by making sure that reporters who had had questions about the accuracy and the claims made in the New York Times” were put in touch with those experts.
“And I think just to continue to be very, very clear on this,” the press secretary emphasized, “it was about the accuracy of the reporting and the claims that were made in there. Plain and simple. About whether or not a story that appeared in the New York Times was accurate. And individual after individual continued to say that, as far as they knew, they weren’t.”
Spicer pointed out that House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., had the same experience: “He reached out to us to say I’ve been telling people, reporters, that these allegations and descriptions in the New York Times are not accurate.”
Spicer described how he was, basically, just doing his job when asked by reporters which sources, outside of the White House, could corroborate the administration’s claims that there had been no improper contact with Russian officials.
“So our job was to continue to, when informed, share sources who had equally come to the same conclusion that the Times story was not accurate.”
But Karl pressed on with his insinuation that Spicer himself may have done something inappropriate, asking, “You don’t think there’s something strange, something odd, about the White House press secretary getting the CIA director on the phone to knock down a story about an investigation?”
Spicer did not appear to care for that, and he got to the heart of the matter by responding, “No. But, see, respectfully, you are using words like ‘knock down.'”
He continued, “There were reporters coming to us saying, ‘There is a story out there, what’s your take on it?’ And our answer was we don’t believe it is accurate.”
Spicer again reminded Karl the story began with the FBI coming to the White House.
“And all we did was simply say, ‘That’s great, could you tell other reporters the same thing you are telling us?’ And I would think that other reporters, yourself included, would think that that would be a helpful thing to get the story straight.”
He added, “So, you know, respectfully I think it’s interesting that I’m being asked what’s appropriate when what were doing is actually urging reporters to engage with subject matter experts who can corroborate whether or not something’s accurate.”
That’s when Karl upped the stakes and asked, “Should there be a special prosecutor?” He noted that former Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., had called for one and had also said Attorney General Jeff Sessions should recuse himself from the investigation, having been part of the Trump campaign.
That’s when Spicer retorted, “A special prosecutor for what?”
Karl returned volley with, “To look into the whole Russia connection.”
“I understand, but here’s my question Jonathan,” replied the press secretary, “We have now for six months heard story after story, about unnamed sources saying the same thing over and over again and nothing has come of it.”
He added, “And, as Chairman Nunes made very clear today, he has seen nothing that corroborates that. So at some point you got ask yourself, what are you investigating?”
“Russian interference,” said Karl.
That’s when Spicer reiterated the issue had been investigated already by the intelligence community, the House and the Senate, who all had found nothing.
And again, he came back with, “So, the question becomes at some point, if there’s nothing to further investigate, what are you asking people to investigate?”
But Karl pressed on yet again, pointedly asking, “Can you now categorically deny there were (any) contacts between the Russians and anybody in the campaign?”
Spicer said he could not; he could only say no one investigating the matter had discovered any such contacts.
“How many people have to say that there’s nothing there before you realize there’s nothing there?” rhetorically asked the press secretary.
He added, “I continue to see reports coming from different media sources that say when they checked in with law enforcement or intelligence community sources there’s nothing more than has been previously reported over and over again.”
Spicer was clearly exasperated during the seven-minute exchange, and with the mainstream media’s persistence in pursuing the narrative that the Russians somehow influenced the presidential election.
Other than the Times story, the narrative has been based on two tenuous claims: that Russia hacked Democrats’ emails and provided them to WikiLeaks during the campaign (which both the Russians and WIkiLeaks deny); and that, before taking office, former National Security Adviser Gen. Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. about sanctions.
However, there have been no claims the Russians hacked actual election voting. At worst, the alleged influence perpetrated by the Russians is said to be colluding with WikiLeaks to publicize emails embarrassing to Democrats.
Additionally, as defenders of the administration have noted, given that John Podesta, the former chairman of the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign, used “password” as his password, it would not have taken the sophistication of the Russians to have hacked the Democrats’ emails.
On top of all that, the Democrats never denied the authenticity of the contents of the embarrassing emails.
As for Flynn, the administration has said his resignation was asked for not because he did anything wrong or illegal, but because he was not honest with Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of his conversation with the Russian ambassador when asked if they’d discussed sanctions.