White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, during multiple appearances today on the Sunday talk shows, stopped just short of agreeing with his boss President Trump that the media is the “enemy of the American people” and is no longer a credible news source.
Contrary to Trump’s unprecedented rants against the news media – most recently during his 45-minute, campaign-style rally in Melbourne, Florida, on Saturday before an adoring crowd of 9,000 – Priebus insisted that Trump still supports the First Amendment. “He believes in the free press,” Priebus declared but stressed the media is biased on both sides of the ideological spectrum.
The former Republican National Committee chair offered a full-throated defense of Trump’s complaints about “fake news,” especially a New York Times report last week that members of Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year leading up to the November 8 election.
Priebus dismissed the newspaper’s story – based on intelligence intercepts that were described to The Times by unnamed sources – as “garbage” and totally unfounded.
“I can assure you, and I’ve been approved to say this, that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that the story is not only inaccurate but it’s grossly overstated,” Priebus said during an appearance on Fox News Sunday. “If I can say that to the American people, then what does it say about the story?”
The Times reported that American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time that Russia was trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee. According to the newspaper, the intelligence agencies then sought to determine whether the Trump campaign was “colluding with the Russians” on the hacking or other efforts to help Trump beat Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
The Times’ story was part of a much larger tableau of recent damaging news reports and leaks about disarray within the White House and troubling questions about several pre-inaugural phone calls between Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and National Security Adviser Michael T. Flynn.
Flynn was forced to resign last week under pressure from Trump after he was caught lying to Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of those calls. A big unanswered question was whether Flynn intended to send a signal to Russia that Trump intended to lift the sanctions Obama had imposed for meddling in the US election after Trump took office.
Pence was kept in the dark by Flynn and Trump about the contents of the conversations and went on television Jan. 15 to say the sanctions hadn’t been discussed. Priebus said today that he first learned that Flynn had discussed the sanction with Kislyak sometime after Jan. 27 — after then acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed White House Counsel Don McGahn about U.S. intercepts of Flynn’s calls.
The House and Senate intelligence committees and at least five other congressional panels have begun investigating Russia’s efforts to influence the outcome of the presidential election and reports of dealings between Trump campaign operatives and the Russians.
The Senate intelligence committee on Friday sent a formal request to the White House and more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals asking them to preserve all materials related to the panel’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the election and related issues, according to the Associated Press. The letters were sent the same day the committee members received a classified briefing from FBI Director James Comey at the Capitol.
Trump said at his news conference on Friday that he was less concerned about Flynn’s conduct than the fact that information about his phone conversations and alleged ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia had been leaked to the news media. “I’ve actually called the Justice Department to look into the leaks,” he said. “Those are criminal leaks.”
Under questioning this morning by Fox News host Chris Wallace, Priebus said he wasn’t at liberty to identify the senior intelligence officials who shot down The Times story about frequent contacts between Trump’s camp and the Russians. "When I say top-level people, I mean top-level people," Priebus said.
Later, during an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press, Priebus told Chuck Todd that Trump was justified in his outrage against The Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN and other major news outlets that have published bombshell reports of questionable accuracy and detracted from the new President’s accomplishments.
“This is what we’re dealing with while we’re putting in a lobbying ban, while we’re freezing federal government employees, while we’re getting the economy back on track, we’re sitting here talking about these stories, or whether [White House senior adviser] Steve Bannon and I get along or not – which we do,” he said. “I can assure you, people in Kenosha, Wisconsin, aren’t worried about that. They want to see jobs and money back in their pockets.”
As for Trump’s vicious attacks on the news media and his over-the-top tweet that reporters are the “enemy” of the American people, Priebus sought to downplay an allegation that has shaken many journalists, politicians and other First Amendment champions.
“Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams have all had their issues with the press,” Priebus said. “I can assure you of this, Chuck, and everyone in your business: The president believes in the First Amendment. He believes in the free press. I believe in those things. We don’t believe everyone is lousy in the media, we don’t believe that everything is bad.”
“But there are some things that are really bad, and he categorizes that as fake news,” he added. “What we have been through over the last ten days – the leaks, the fake stories, the anonymous accusations. That stuff is bad.”
Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told ABC News’ This Week today that Trump’s attack on the press “is something you hear tin-pot dictators say when they want to control all of the information.”
Schiff said that he was stunned by Trump’s comment, and characterized them as unprecedented in modern presidential politics. “Not even Nixon went there,” he said.