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White House tries to shift discussion amid FBI director's testimony

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WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, reacting to news from the first day of House Intelligence Committee hearings into the 2016 election, tried to steer reporters away from questions about possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials—and onto the administration’s preferred topic, news media leaks about intercepted conversations involving fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Spicer’s usual daily press briefing took place in the afternoon as FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency head Mike Rogers were still testifying. Earlier in the day, Comey said there is no evidence to support Trump’s claim that his predecessor, President Obama, wiretapped his campaign—a widely anticipated statement that did not lead to a retraction by the White House.

Trump’s press secretary minimized reports of contact between Russian officials and Trump campaign figures, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was describred by Spicer as having played “a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

Spicer began the briefing with a statement noting Comey’s confirmation that the FBI is investigating Russia’s role in the election. The U.S. intelligence community has alleged Russia interfered in the race in an effort to boost Trump’s campaign. Spicer said the president “is happy that they’re pursuing the facts on this” and pointed out no official has said there is evidence Trump’s campaign was part of these efforts.

“Following this testimony, it’s clear that nothing has changed. Senior Obama intelligence officials have gone on record to confirm that there is no evidence of a Trump-Russia collusion,” Spicer said.

Spicer added there was “new information that came from the hearing that we believe is newsworthy,” referring to “the unmasking of Americans identified in intelligence reports and the illegal leak of such unmasked individuals.” He described this as a “federal crime.”

The issue concerns leaks of information to the Washington Post and other media outlets about the substance of conversations between Flynn and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak during the presidential transition. Flynn misled administration officials about the contacts, which led to his resignation after only a few weeks in office.

American surveillance of foreign officials such as Kislyak is routine, but the identities of U.S. citizens who are monitored as part of those efforts are supposed to remain classified, or “masked.” Spicer noted that Comey said “certain political appointees in the Obama administration had access to the names of unmasked us citizens.”

“Before President Obama left office, Michael Flynn was unmasked and then, illegally, his identity was leaked to media outlets,” Spicer said.

The Trump administration has repeatedly suggested officials from the Obama administration may be attempting to undermine Trump. The issue of the leaks, however, is unrelated to Trump’s allegation that Obama wiretapped offices in Trump Tower.

The first question Spicer faced came from ABC’s Jon Karl, who turned the focus back to the president’s unsupported wiretapping claim. Karl pointed out Comey said there was no evidence to back up that accusation and asked Spicer whether Trump is prepared to “withdraw that allegation and apologize” to Obama.

“No,” Spicer said flatly.

Spicer went on to note the hearings are still “ongoing” and suggested further information might emerge. Trump has also claimed additional revelations will support his claim.

Karl continued by pointing out that Comey said the FBI is investigating potential coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia.

“I don’t think that’s what he said,” Spicer declared.

Comey did indeed say the FBI is probing whether there was “cooperation” between the Trump campaign and Russia.

Spicer noted that “investigating it and having proof of it are two different things.” He cited numerous officials who have said they have seen no evidence this type of collusion occurred.

“There’s a point at which you continue to search for something that everybody who’s been briefed hasn’t seen or found — I think it’s fine to look into it, but at the end of the day, they’re going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had,” said Spicer. “So, you can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn’t exist doesn’t matter.”

Spicer also dismissed reports that have emerged about Trump associates who did have connections with Russia. He suggested these were all people who did not have a real connection to the campaign.

“There is a discussion, I heard some names thrown around before that were hangers on or on the campaign,” Spicer said, adding, “Some of those names, the greatest amount of interaction that they’ve had is cease and desist letters sent to them.”

In response to another question by Karl, Spicer acknowledged he was referring to Roger Stone, a longtime Trump confidante and early adviser who left the campaign in August 2015 and Carter Page, who was for a time a foreign policy adviser to the campaign. Spicer also noted former campaign chairman Paul Manafort had ties to Russia, but he minimized Manafort’s role in the campaign.

“Obviously, there’s been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time,” Spicer said.

“Paul Manafort didn’t play a limited role!” Karl interjected incredulously.

In fact Manafort was involved with the Trump campaign for about five months, including about two as the campaign’s top official. Manafort eventually quit Trump’s campaign last August amid sagging poll numbers and growing controversy about his links to Russia.

Yahoo News texted Manafort to ask whether he agreed with Spicer’s characterization of his “very limited role.” Manafort did not respond, but he later released a statement reading in part:

“I had no role or involvement in the cyberattack on the DNC or the subsequent release of information gained from the attack, and I have never spoken with any Russian Government officials or anyone who claimed to have been involved in the attack….Despite the constant scrutiny and innuendo, there are no facts or evidence supporting these allegations, nor will there be.”

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