President Donald Trump Wednesday staunchly defended the national security adviser he ousted earlier in the week, saying Michael Flynn was the victim of illegal leaks from the country's intelligence community detailing his conversations with Russia's ambassador to Washington.
Trump made no mention of why he forced Flynn's resignation after just 24 days on the job, as he spoke at a White House news conference alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The White House has said the move was made because of the president's "eroding trust" in the former Army general.
"I think it's really a sad thing he was treated so badly," Trump said. "I think, in addition to that, from intelligence -- papers are being leaked, things are being leaked. It's criminal action, criminal act. And it's been going on for a long time, before me. But now it's really going on."
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He suggested that officials leaking details about Flynn's calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were "trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton," the former U.S. secretary of state Trump defeated in the November election.
Trump made similar accusations on his Twitter account earlier in the day.
Clinton was among those who during the election campaign raised questions about links between Trump and his associates to Russia.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials by telling them he had not spoken to Kislyak about sanctions imposed by former President Barack Obama for Russia' meddling in the election, when U.S. intercepts showed he had.
A group of bipartisan members of Congress introduced legislation Wednesday to prevent the Trump administration from lifting those sanctions without congressional approval.
There is also an ongoing investigation into Russian influence on the election and fresh calls from both Democrats and some Republicans for probes into links between Russia and key Trump aides.
The heads of two congressional committees asked the Justice Department on Wednesday to investigate the leaks that Trump criticized.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte said in a letter they have "serious concerns about the potential inadequate protection of classified information here."
The Washington Post last week was the first newspaper to publish details about the phone conversations between Flynn and the Russian ambassador before Trump took office, while the New York Times in Wednesday's editions said Trump aides and associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
Russia dismissed the Times' report that members of Trump's campaign and other associates were in contact with senior Russian intelligence officials before the November U.S. election.
The Times cited four current and former U.S. officials as saying law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted calls and had phone records involving Trump's one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and several other unnamed associates.
Manafort called the accounts "absurd," the Times said.
He also denied a similar CNN report that Trump associates, including Manafort and Flynn, were regularly communicating with Russian nationals before the election.