WASHINGTON — President Trump on Wednesday denounced “criminal” leaks of classified secrets and what he called the “very, very unfair” news media’s treatment of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, a day after the White House said the mercurial retired general had to go because he misled colleagues and lost his unpredictable boss’s trust.
“I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to Gen. Flynn, the way he was treated and the documents and papers that were illegally — I stress that, illegally — leaked,” Trump said at a joint press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The president praised Flynn as “a wonderful man” targeted by “the fake media,” and condemned leaks of information showing that the former Army general misled top officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about potentially improper contacts with a top Russian diplomat. “It’s a criminal act,” Trump said of the disclosures. “People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”
It was the latest attempt by the president to shift attention away from Flynn’s actions as well as reported contacts between figures in Trump’s inner circle and officials tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government and toward the remarkable leaks of sensitive information related to his contacts with Russia’s U.S. ambassador in December. Citing unnamed current and former administration officials, the New York Times reported on Tuesday that Trump campaign aides were in regular contact with Russian intelligence officials throughout the campaign.
Trump removed Flynn ostensibly over the retired general’s changing characterization of his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Apparently on Flynn’s say-so, top officials including Pence and Trump press secretary Sean Spicer denied that the conversations had touched on the question of U.S. sanctions imposed under the Obama administration in response to allegations that Russia tried to influence the 2016 election. Flynn at first expressed confidence that the sanctions didn’t come up, then later allowed that they might have, after news reports cited multiple officials as saying they had. A bombshell Washington Post report on Friday disclosed that U.S. intelligence officials possessed transcripts of the calls that contradicted Flynn.
After Pence’s public denials, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates approached White House Counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 to say that the Department of Justice had information contradicting Flynn’s account, Spicer confirmed on Tuesday. McGahn immediately “briefed the president and a small group of his senior advisers,” then opened an internal investigation that “determined that there is not a legal issue, but rather a trust issue,” the spokesman said. But Spicer declined to say whether any White House officials had read transcripts of Flynn’s calls, or whether those records would be made public.
Later, Pence press secretary Marc Lotter said the vice president only “became aware” on Feb. 9 — two weeks after Yates approached the White House — that Flynn misled him “based on news reports” that he confirmed with other senior officials.
There was no sign that Pence would have learned that Flynn had misled him absent the news reporting based on the leaks.
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