Sen. Coons says Spicer mischaracterized his comments to defend Trump on Russia

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Sen. Chris Coons says “there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that suggests collusion may have occurred” between the Trump campaign and Russia. | AP Photo

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat, said White House press secretary Sean Spicer “blatantly mischaracterized” comments he had made to shield President Donald Trump from scrutiny into his campaign’s relationship with Russia.

FBI Director James Comey confirmed Monday that the bureau is investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, including whether any Trump aides colluded with the Russians as they attempted to disrupt the presidential election last year.

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The White House has repeatedly denied any such wrongdoing. At Monday afternoon’s press briefing, Spicer reiterated that denial, and to make his point, he cited statements from officials, including Coons, who had said that they have not seen evidence that such collusion occurred.

In a statement later Monday afternoon, Coons said he is “disappointed” in the White House for citing his comments “misleadingly” to defend Trump. Coons reiterated that while he has not yet seen evidence proving any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, he has not ruled out the possibility that it happened.

Spicer selectively quoted him, Coons said, without crucial context.

“For Mr. Spicer’s sake, let me be clear once again,” Coons said. “Though I have not seen specific evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, there is quite a bit of circumstantial evidence that suggests collusion may have occurred, including confirmation just this morning that the FBI is investigating potential collusion between the campaign and Russian officials.”

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Spicer digs in after FBI confirms Russia probe

The mere presence of an investigation into ties between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and the Russian government does not indicate that such connections actually exist, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Monday, reacting to the first public disclosure from the FBI that it is looking into the Kremlin’s interference in last year’s election.

While the presence of an FBI investigation into Russian election meddling and ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials had been the source of much reporting, bureau director James Comey confirmed Monday that the investigation does, in fact exist. Testifying before the House Intelligence Committee, Comey said the investigation is focused not just on Russian interference in the election but also on ties between Moscow and Trump campaign officials.

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“Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things,” Spicer said at his Monday press briefing, citing multiple intelligence community officials and lawmakers who have said that they have seen no evidence to indicate a tie between the president’s campaign and the Russian government.

“I mean, there’s a point at which you continue to search for something that everybody who’s been briefed hasn’t seen or found,” he continued. “I think it’s fine to look into it but at the end of the day, they’re going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had. So you can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn’t exist, doesn’t matter.”

Without naming names, Spicer also characterized many of the former Trump campaign officials who have been tied in media reports to Russia as “hangers-on” who had in reality had little to do with the president’s team. On a reporter’s follow-up question, Spicer confirmed that Carter Page, a former adviser to the Trump campaign, would be one such individual.

“Those people, the greatest amount of interaction that they had with the campaign was the campaign apparently sending them a series of cease and desist letters,” Spicer said. “When you read a lot of this activity about ‘associates,’ there is a fine line between people who want to be part of something that they never had an official role in and people who actually played a role in either the campaign or the transition.”

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Spicer defends Trump’s golf habits, saying he is ‘entitled to a bit of privacy’

White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended President Donald Trump’s penchant for taking work to his personal golf clubs, saying that Trump is “entitled to a bit of privacy” when conducting meetings.

“It’s the same reason he can have lunch or dinner with somebody,” Spicer told Yahoo White House correspondent Hunter Walker when asked why Trump had not provided more information about the details of the meetings conducted on the golf course. “The president is entitled to a bit of privacy at this point, which we’ve always agreed to. We bring the protective pool, but the president is entitled to a bit of privacy as well.”

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Walker also asked Spicer about the 10 trips Trump has made to play golf during his presidency so far, something that Trump criticized former President Barack Obama for when Obama was in office. Spicer defended Trump, and said that the president has talked about “how you use the game of golf” for diplomatic ends.

“You saw him utilize this as an opportunity with Prime Minister Abe to help foster a deeper relationship in southeast Asia, in Asia rather, and have a growing relationship that’s going to help U.S. interests,” Spicer said.

“On a couple of occasions he’s actually conducted meetings there, he’s had phone calls,” Spicer added. “Just because he heads there doesn’t mean that’s what’s happening.”

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Spicer says Manafort played a ‘very limited role’ in the campaign

White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay scrutiny into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia on Monday by describing Paul Manafort, the president’s former campaign chairman, as someone “who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the effort.

Asked at Monday’s press briefing if President Donald Trump stands by his earlier comments that he is not aware of any contacts between his campaign associates and Russia, Spicer acknowledged former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s previous relationship with the country, but described him as a “volunteer of the campaign.”

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And then, understating the role of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Spicer added: “There has been discussion of Paul Manafort, who played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time.”

Manafort ran Trump’s campaign for several months last year before he resigned in August, while he was facing scrutiny for his ties to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

Spicer clarified that the president is not aware of contacts between Manafort and Russia beyond those that have “been previously discussed.”

Earlier on Monday, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau is actively investigating whether there are any links between Trump’s campaign and Russia and whether the campaign coordinated with the country as it attempted to meddle in the presidential election.

The White House has repeatedly denied any such collusion.

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Roger Stone takes center stage as Congress lines up Russia probe witnesses

Roger Stone is pictured. | Getty

Roger Stone has made a variety of claims since Election Day that could make lawmakers circumspect about his value as a witness and his motives for wanting to appear on Capitol Hill. | Getty

Unlike other Trump aides, Stone has freely discussed his communications with Moscow-linked affiliates.

Pro-Trump provocateur Roger Stone repeatedly came up in Monday’s opening hearing on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election — but leading lawmakers have indicated they’re still eager to hear from him directly.

And Stone says he would be eager to comply.

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Already, Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr said his panel has sent Stone a letter asking him to preserve relevant documents and communications, setting the right-wing agitator on a course to eventually come to Capitol Hill.

Stone confirmed he received the letter — which POLITICO first reported on over the weekend — in an email exchange with POLITICO on Monday. The missive is dated Feb. 17, but Stone said he received it on Friday.

“I am anxious to rebut allegations that I had any improper or nefarious contact with any agent of the Russia State based on facts not misleading and salacious headlines. Claims of Russian influence or collusion in the Trump Campaign by the Intelligence Community are backed up buy ZERO evidence,” Stone said in an email.

While leading lawmakers have been mostly coy about which Trump associates they plan to call in their probes of alleged Russian influence, they are willing to break their silence when it comes to Stone. That’s because the fringe Trump adviser has repeatedly drawn attention to his role in the alleged Russian hacks that destabilized the race and undermined Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

“Listen, if we’re investigating Russian interference, here’s someone who’s acknowledged he’s been in contact with the Russians,” said Sen. Mark Warner (Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters last week.

It “absolutely” makes sense to bring him in, Warner added.

Unlike other Trump aides, Stone has freely discussed his communications with Moscow-linked affiliates, including “Guccifer 2.0” — the hacker persona U.S. intelligence officials believe was a Russian front to launder stolen documents, but who Stone is not convinced is a Moscow asset — and WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy site that published personal emails stolen from Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta.

Stone even cryptically tweeted about Podesta two weeks before the Clinton aide’s emails were dumped online, although Stone insists he did not know a leak was on the horizon and that the tweet was actually about an article he wrote on Podesta and his brother.

Still, between the Podesta prediction and acknowledging he’d had contact with groups that helped disseminate stolen documents, Stone has “hit the trifecta,” Warner said.

“There’s certainly a lot of questions that I would like to ask him,” agreed Rep. Adam Schiff (Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee.

On Monday, Schiff placed Stone front-and-center as he questioned FBI Director James Comey and National Security Agency Director Adm. Michael Rogers.

Schiff made the most of his opportunity Monday during the committee’s first public hearing of its probe into whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow officials on the alleged digital meddling campaign that bruised Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

The lawmaker pressed Comey on whether he knew who Stone is and if he was aware of Stone’s interactions with suspected hackers.

Comey said he was “generally” aware of who Stone is but wouldn’t comment on his reported activities.

“I’m worried we’re going to a place I don’t want to go, which is commenting on any particular person,” Comey added. “So I don’t think I should comment. I’m aware of public accounts.”

Comey later said Schiff had the “correct chronology” in terms of Stone predicting the Podesta emails.

Schiff wasn’t the only lawmaker to mention Stone during Monday’s hearing.

Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) described a spider-web with Putin as the “tarantula in the middle” who is “entrapping many people to do his bidding and to engage with him” including Stone.

Yet despite the bipartisan consensus among lawmakers that they, at some point, would like Stone to appear before their committees, it’s unclear what, if anything, the longtime GOP operative would actually add to their investigations.

Stone’s position within the Trump campaign hierarchy was never concretely defined, raising questions about what level of access he enjoyed.

On Monday, White House press secretary Sean Spicer described Stone and Trump as having “a long relationship, going back years, where he would provide counsel.”

But Stone, according to Spicer, only “worked briefly on the campaign I think until about August of 2015, from recollection.” He added that the duo “have talked from time to time, but I don’t think any time recently.”

Stone, who is in the midst of promoting a book on last year’s election, has a ready explanation for each action that has drawn the attention of lawmakers. He will gladly share them if asked.

“I don’t have to be subpoenaed,” Stone told POLITICO in an interview last week. “I’d come voluntarily, but if they want to issue a subpoena to get a headline, that’s fine, too. I’m anxious to speak, the sooner the better. I would like to put an end to this myth about collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.”

But Stone has made a variety of claims since Election Day that could make lawmakers circumspect about his value as a witness and his motives for wanting to appear on Capitol Hill.

Right around the time the Senate Intelligence Committee announced it would examine the alleged Russian cyberattacks, Stone claimed he was poisoned with polonium — the same radioactive material used to kill a former KGB spy in 2006.

Then in Florida this past week, Stone said he was a passenger in a vehicle struck in a hit-and-run collision, an accident he believes was deliberate as it occurred the same day Nunes and Schiff weighed in on the possibility of his testimony.

“It’s conceivable that someone does not want me to testify,” he said, claiming that the other vehicle struck directly where he was sitting and that a witness at the scene said the temporary license plate on the other car was fake.

The sheriff report of the incident doesn’t mention Stone’s involvement, but Stone said that’s because he left the scene in an Uber.

A potential upside to bringing in Stone — for both Republicans and Democrats examining Russia’s digital tampering — is that his testimony offers more evidence that Congress is making progress on probing the possible connections between the Trump camp and Moscow, a sticking point that nearly derailed the Senate’s inquiry.

Unlike Paul Manafort, Trump’s second campaign manager who is suspected to have long-standing ties ties to pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who was pushed out of his highly-sensitive post for misleading colleagues about communications he had with a top Russian diplomat, Stone represents a potentially far less complex witness.

Nunes would be happy to hear from any of them.

“If these people want to come forward to our committee they’re welcome to and they’re welcome to provide either depositions [or] written testimony,” he said. “That remains the case.”

“But as I’ve said we’re not going to just call in witnesses based on just press reports alone,” Nunes added.

Depending on when he’s called, Stone’s appearance could be the first in a parade of Trump associates to appear before Congress.

“I’d like Roger Stone. I’d like Carter Page. I’d like the head of Donald Trump’s security team in front of the committee,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, the top Democrat on House Intelligence Committee’s CIA subpanel, referring to another Trump adviser who met with Russian officials.

“People who are in his orbit who have personal political or financial ties to Russia, we’d like to see them before the committee,” Swalwell added, before mentioning Attorney General Jeff Sessions and J.D. Gordon, another former Trump campaign adviser.

Sessions recused himself from any Justice Department investigations related to the election after it was revealed he met twice with the Russian ambassador during the campaign, when he served as a Trump surrogate. Gordon, who played a small role in crafting the Republican Party’s platform, has admitted he and other Trump personnel also met with the Russian ambassador during the Republican National Convention.

The document sent to Stone requests he retain pertinent documents from the campaign. However, Burr said there is no timeline yet for bringing in Stone.

“Sometimes the people that want to talk the most are not the ones who are the most valuable,” he said.

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