WASHINGTON - U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday staunchly defended the national security adviser he ousted earlier this 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 and had been “treated very, very unfairly by the media.”
Trump, speaking at a White House news conference alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, made no mention of why he forced Flynn's resignation after just 24 days on the job, for what the White House described Tuesday as 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 the documents 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 turns to Twitter
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said Tuesday that Flynn had misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials in the weeks before Trump's January 20 inauguration in telling them that he had not talked with Kislyak about sanctions imposed on Moscow by former President Barack Obama in retaliation for Russia's meddling in the presidential election to help Trump win, when U.S. intercepts of their conversations showed that he had.
Trump's defense of Flynn came hours after he launched similar broadsides about the White House drama in a string of comments on his Twitter account.
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” Trump said.
The president, in office for less than a month, suggested news articles detailing links between him, his campaign aides and Flynn and Russian officials were aimed at undermining his victory over Clinton.
In one tweet, Trump said, “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign.”
He said, “The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred.” He said two U.S. cable news outlets, MSNBC and CNN, were “unwatchable,” while describing the Trump-friendly talk show “Fox & Friends” as "great."
At the same time, the president claimed that “information is being illegally given to the failing” New York Times and Washington Post “by the intelligence community,” the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, “just like Russia.”
The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by "intelligence" like candy. Very un-American!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 15, 2017
Russia dismisses report
The 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 Times in Wednesday's editions said Trump aides and associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian officials during the 2016 campaign.
The new president also attacked Obama, saying, “Crimea was TAKEN by Russia during the Obama Administration. Was Obama too soft on Russia?”
Obama often rebuked Moscow for its unilateral 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula and the United States, along with the European Union, imposed sanctions against Russia. But the West did not intervene militarily and Crimea remains under Russian control.
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.
Accounts called 'absurd'
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.
In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the report “is not based on any facts,” while Russian media quoted the country's foreign intelligence service saying reports about the contacts were unfounded.
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said at a briefing that Russian envoys acted within normal practice for diplomats of all countries.
Flynn was ousted Monday after information became public about contacts he had with Kislyak ahead of Trump's assumption of power.
Evaluation preceded Flynn's resignation
The White House said Tuesday that Trump, based on intercepts of Flynn's calls with Kislyak, was advised nearly three weeks ago that Flynn had misled Pence.
White House spokesman Spicer said the president and his close advisers had been “reviewing and evaluating” that information on a “daily basis for a few weeks” before Trump forced Flynn's resignation.
Before Trump's inauguration, Pence told CBS News' Face the Nation that Flynn and Kislyak did not discuss the U.S. sanctions against Russia over Ukraine.
Pence also said Flynn and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do” with the Obama administration's decision in late December to expel dozens of Russian diplomats. The Russians were sent home in response to allegations of Russian cyber-spying against Clinton's campaign chief during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Loss of trust
Responding Tuesday to reporters' questions about the 18-day gap between the January 26 Trump briefing and Flynn's departure on Monday, Spicer said, “The president concluded he no longer had trust in his national security adviser.”
Spicer also said the White House decided there was “nothing wrong” that Flynn had talked with the Russian diplomat, even though Flynn was a private citizen at the time.
Flynn acknowledged in his resignation letter that he had “inadvertently briefed” Pence and others with “incomplete information” regarding his phone calls with Kislyak.
Kellogg joins Trump staff
Key opposition Democratic lawmakers, and some Republicans, are calling for expanded investigations into links between Russia and key Trump aides.
Trump named another retired Army general, Keith Kellogg, as his acting national security adviser.
Also Wednesday, the Trump administration was said to have offered the job to Vice Admiral Robert Harward, two U.S. officials familiar with the matter told Reuters.
It was not immediately clear if Harward, a former deputy commander of U.S. Central Command who has Navy SEAL combat experience, had accepted the offer, the sources told Reuters.
A White House spokesperson had no immediate comment.