White House struggles to insulate Trump from Russia scandal

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Former US national security advisory Michael Flynn is a key figure of interest in several probes into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election

Former US national security advisory Michael Flynn is a key figure of interest in several probes into Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 election (AFP Photo/NICHOLAS KAMM)

Washington (AFP) - The White House on Wednesday struggled to contain fallout from the resignation of the US national security advisor, as Moscow denied reports of contacts between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and Russian officials.

The New York Times reported that US intelligence agents intercepted calls showing that members of Trump's 2016 campaign had repeated contacts with top Russian intelligence officials in the year preceding the November 8 presidential election.

US intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russia had intervened in the US electoral process at least in part to help Trump. US agents are now trying to determine whether the Trump campaign cooperated with Moscow to disrupt Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign, The Times reported.

The newspaper, citing current and former US officials, said that no such evidence has yet emerged.

Former Trump advisor Paul Manafort, who was among those campaign officials heard on the calls, told The Times that the claims were "absurd."

Trump himself took fresh aim at the media in a tweet Wednesday, without mentioning the Times.

"The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. @MSNBC & @CNN are unwatchable. @foxandfriends is great!"

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the latest allegations.

"Don't believe newspaper reports, it's very difficult at the moment to differentiate them from falsehoods and fabrications," Peskov told reporters.

- Trump warned about Flynn -

"If you don't mind let's wait and let's not believe anonymous information, which is information based on no fact," he said.

The White House admitted Tuesday that Trump was told three weeks ago that ousted national security advisor Michael Flynn may have misled colleagues about his Kremlin contacts.

The retired three-star general and former head of US defense intelligence initially denied discussing sanctions strategy with Russia's ambassador Sergey Kislyak before taking office, a move that may have breached US law on negotiating with foreign powers.

Flynn was asked to resign on Monday, after what the White House said was an internal investigation that showed no wrongdoing but "eroded" trust.

Flynn is the third Trump aide to step back amid questions about his ties to Russia since the mogul began his improbable White House bid.

- Misleading Pence? -

His departure follows those of Manafort and Carter Page, an early foreign policy advisor to the candidate.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer strongly denied that Trump had instructed Flynn to discuss possibly rolling back sanctions that Obama imposed on Russia.

The White House had painted Trump's final decision as based on Flynn misleading Vice President Mike Pence.

But it emerged Tuesday that Trump kept Pence in the dark for two weeks.

Spokesman Marc Lotter said Pence only learned the issue in media reports.

The unprecedented early resignation of a key staff member has rocked an administration already buffeted by leaks, infighting and legal defeats.

When first informed, on January 26, that Flynn may have made misleading statements about his talks with Russia's envoy, Spicer said the president "instinctively thought that General Flynn did not do anything wrong."

The White House legal counsel "determined that there is not an illegal issue, but rather a trust issue," Spicer said.

"The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result ... is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation."

The White House also insisted that Trump -- despite repeatedly professing admiration for Vladimir Putin and suggesting sanctions could be lifted -- "has been incredibly tough on Russia."

In a new hardening of the US line on Russia, Spicer added that "President Trump has made it very clear he expects the Russian government to de-escalate violence in the Ukraine and return Crimea."

The State Department expressed concern that Russia is in breach of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, after reports that Moscow had deployed an operational ground-launched cruise missile unit.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov plans to meet his US counterpart Rex Tillerson on Thursday in Germany, when both diplomats will be in Bonn for the G20 ministerial talks, a foreign ministry spokeswoman said Wednesday.

Lavrov will "discuss bilateral relations, which were taken into a dead end by the previous administration," the spokeswoman said.

Also on the agenda: "the main international crises which our countries have cooperated on and must cooperate," as well as "regional issues," she said.

- Inquiries and missteps -

The White House's efforts are likely to do little to assuage concerns on Capitol Hill about Russia's influence in US politics.

Republicans and Democratic lawmakers have now called for an investigation into what occurred, although they differ sharply on the scope and powers.

Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren insisted that Trump "owes Americans a full account" of his campaign and administration's dealings with Moscow.

The Senate's top Republican Mitch McConnell said it was "highly likely" that Flynn would have to testify before an intelligence panel.

The Times also reported that the FBI had interviewed Flynn on his calls with the Russian diplomat days into his job.

The CIA, FBI and other intelligence agencies have already investigated Moscow's influence over the 2016 vote, concluding the Kremlin tried to sway it in Trump's favor.

Various committees in the Republican-controlled Congress are looking into Russia's election-related hacking and the Trump campaign's links to Moscow.