Yesterday’s testimony from FBI Director James Comey, about an ongoing criminal investigation of links between the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election, has cast a black cloud over the White House.
But in the case of White House chief of staff Reince Preibus, the impact is even more direct: Comey’s testimony strongly suggests that Priebus has not only repeatedly lied to the American people, but also that he may have obstructed justice.
In February, CNN reported that Priebus had reached out to the deputy director of the FBI, Andrew McCabe, as well as to FBI Director James Comey, and asked them to publicly refute a Feb. 14 New York Times article that said the FBI was investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officials.
It is massively inappropriate for the White House chief of staff to contact top officials at the FBI about an ongoing investigation, particularly one that may involve members of the White House staff and even the president. In fact, it smacks of an effort to obstruct justice.
The White House, however, defended Priebus’s actions by claiming that it was not the chief of staff who initiated contact with the FBI, but rather it was McCabe who approached Priebus.
According to the White House, discussions began with McCabe and Priebus “on the sidelines of a separate White House meeting the day after’’ the Times story was published.
McCabe reportedly told the White House chief of staff that the story was “BS.”
The White House has further claimed that Priebus followed up on this conversation by reaching out to McCabe and his boss, Jim Comey, and asked that someone at the agency talk to reporters on background disputing the Times reporting. Both men refused, but according to the Associated Press, quoting White House officials, they did give “Priebus the go-ahead to discredit the story publicly.”
That’s what Priebus did. The Sunday after the New York Times story appeared, he went on “Fox News Sunday” and said:
“I have been approved to say this: that the top levels of the intelligence community have assured me that that story is not only inaccurate, but it’s grossly overstated, and it was wrong. And there’s nothing to it.
The same day, Priebus went on NBC’s Meet the Press and made a similar statement:
“The report will say there’s nothing there. I know what [senators] were told by the FBI, because I’ve talked to the FBI. I know what they’re saying. I wouldn’t be on your show right now telling you that we’ve been assured that there’s nothing to the New York Times story if I actually wasn’t assured — and, by the way, if I didn’t actually have clearance to make this comment. I’m not a sloppy guy.”
This White House claim that the FBI reached out to them to dispute the Times story seems a bit shady. Why would the FBI give the White House chief of staff information about an ongoing investigation that involved the president and his aides? To do so would fuel speculation that the FBI was operating in cahoots with the White House and, if revealed, would stain the entire investigation. For the record, the FBI has not disputed or confirmed Priebus’s claim. They’ve simply refused to comment.
But in light of Comey’s testimony on Monday, do any of the White House’s claims seem believable?
First of all, we know that Priebus’s public assertion that the New York Times story on contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence is simply not true. If there were no contacts, then the FBI clearly wouldn’t be investigating Trump and his aides. At the very least, Priebus lied to the American people and should apologize for doing so.
Second, Priebus’s claim that he was “approved” by the FBI to say the Times story was wrong is dubious, since Comey on Monday implicitly confirmed that the story was correct. Moreover, why would McCabe have acted so inappropriately in reaching out to Priebus to tell him the Times story was “BS” when we now know from Comey’s testimony that the story is not BS?
The more likely explanation for the contacts between Priebus and the FBI — which of course the White House does not deny took place — is that it was Priebus who reached out to McCabe and Comey and asked them to dispute the story.
If all this is true, then Priebus not only violated longstanding norms that severely limit contact between the White House and the Department of Justice, but his outreach to the FBI looks very much like an implicit effort to pressure the FBI into denying the Times story. That sounds a lot like obstruction of justice.
Even if Priebus did not intend to pressure the FBI about the investigation, his contact with Comey and McCabe gives the appearance that this is exactly what he was trying to do. In short, none of the White House’s explanations about the nature of the contact between Priebus and the FBI make any sense. The more logical explanation is that Priebus committed a serious ethical – and potentially legal – violation.
He should resign immediately.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71