Lawyers tell White House staff to preserve Russia-related materials as Democrats see risk of cover-up
White House lawyers have instructed US President Donald Trump’s aides to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian interference in the 2016 election and other related investigations, three administration officials said Wednesday.
The memo, which was sent to White House staff on Tuesday, comes after Senate Democrats last week asked the White House and law enforcement agencies to keep all materials involving contacts that Trump’s administration, campaign and transition team — or anyone acting on their behalf — have had with Russian government officials or their associates.
The Senate intelligence committee, which is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, has also asked more than a dozen organisations, agencies and individuals to preserve relevant records.
The three administration officials who confirmed that White House staffers were instructed to comply did so on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.
Trump has been dogged by questions about his advisers’ ties to Russia since the campaign. Federal investigators have been looking into possible contacts between Trump advisers and Russia, while congressional committees are investigating Russia’s role in political hacking during the campaign.
The intelligence community has assessed that Russia’s hacking of Democratic groups and operatives was carried out to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
One official said the memo from the counsel’s office instructs White House staff to preserve material from Trump’s time in office, and for those who worked on the campaign, relevant material from the election.
A Trump spokesman said the White House was “simply taking proactive steps” and called the accusations of nefarious ties between the president and Russia “false and politically motivated attacks.”
Congressional staffers have said they are not aware of any evidence that materials related to Russia are not being preserved.
But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said last week: “There is real concern that some in the administration may try to cover up its ties to Russia by deleting emails, texts and other records that could shine a light on those connections. These records are likely to be the subject of executive branch as well as congressional investigations and must be preserved.”
Trump has denied having any knowledge that aides were in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election, as reported by The New York Times. The White House has launched an aggressive effort to discredit the report, including enlisting GOP chairmen of the congressional intelligence committees to push back against it.
The involvement of North Carolina Senator Richard Burr and California Representative Devin Nunes has sparked calls — mostly from Democrats — for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s role in the election and possible ties to Trump.
The White House has acknowledged that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, misled top officials about the nature of his contacts with Russia’s Ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak. Flynn initially told Vice-President Mike Pence and other Trump advisers that he did not discuss sanctions with the envoy during the transition, though it was later revealed that he did.
The FBI interviewed Flynn about the contacts days after the inauguration. Trump fired Flynn after the discrepancies in his account were publicly revealed.
Late Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Trump’s attorney general Jeff Sessions had twice met the Russian ambassador last year, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during his confirmation hearing.
Sessions met Kislyak on the sidelines on the Republican National Convention in July, then in his office in September, the report said, citing Justice Department officials.
Sessions he was asked at his January 10 confirmation hearing what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign. He replied: “I’m not aware of any of those activities,” adding “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”
Additional reporting by The Washington Post