Deflect and distract: Sean Spicer pivots to Obama in escalating Russia scandal

David Smith in Washington

The White House on Friday tried attack as a form of defence, deflecting questions about Donald Trump’s possible links to Russia by leveling serious allegations at Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and chastising reporters for not investigating them.

At his daily briefing, press secretary Sean Spicer was even more combative than usual as he clashed with journalists from the New York Times and other outlets and accused the Obama administration of “potentially” leaking classified information for political ends.

The fractious exchanges came at the end of a week in which official investigations into links between Trump associates and Moscow have become increasingly labyrinthine. In particular, questions have been raised over a visit last week by Devin Nunes, chairman of the House intelligence committee, to view classified documents at the White House, a move Democrats say compromised his independence.

On Friday, Spicer proved unable or unwilling to answer basic questions about key times, days and dates and whether or not records of visitors to the White House grounds were kept.

But observers of his boss’s deflect-and-distract playbook will not have been surprised by his verbal offensive, which echoed Trump’s aggressive speeches during the election campaign.

On 4 March, Trump used Twitter to claim that Obama had his “wires tapped” at Trump Tower in New York before the election. The FBI has said it has found no evidence to support the charge.

Amid debate over Nunes’ behaviour, Spicer has spent this week accusing reporters of being obsessed with process – who came in what gate and when – and ignoring the substance of the congressional investigations, which he argues is less about Trump and Russia than about the leaking and spreading of intelligence by the Obama administration.

“So let’s talk about some of the substance,” he said on Friday. “On 2 March, the day before [sic] the president’s tweet, comments by a senior [Obama] administration official, foreign policy expert Dr Evelyn Farkas, together with previous reports that have been out, raised serious concerns on whether there was an organised and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive intelligence information for political purposes.”

Spicer claimed Farkas admitted this on the record in a TV interview.

“Dr Farkas’s admissions alone are devastating,” he said.

Sean Spicer speaks during the daily press briefing at the White House on Friday. Photograph: Evan Vucci/AP

Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defence for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia who resigned from the Obama administration in 2015, gave an interview on MSNBC on 2 March in which she said she had urged former colleagues on Capitol Hill to “get as much intelligence as you can” regarding Russian attempts to influence the presidential election before Obama left office, because she feared it would become hidden in the bureaucracy.

Fox News and other conservative media have pounced on the comments as evidence of a conspiracy. Farkas has denied that she had any access to such intelligence or that she condones leaking.

On 29 March, she tweeted “Hi-I didn’t give anybody anything except advice” and said she “was out of govt,had nothing 2 give, wanted Congress2 ask4facts”.

On Friday, Spicer insisted there has been “no evidence” of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, then turned to an attack on Trump’s defeated rival, Clinton. The former secretary of state, he said, was the architect of a failed “reset policy” with Russia, which she told that country’s state TV was designed to “strengthen Russia”.

He went on: “She used her office to make concession after concession, selling off one fifth of our country’s uranium. Paid speeches, paid deals, getting personal calls from Vladimir Putin. I think if they really want to talk about a Russian connection in the substance, that’s where we should be looking. That, not there.”

The claim that Clinton “sold off” US uranium echoed claims by Trump regarding a 2010 sale in which Clinton was one of nine administration figures to sign off, claims which have been debunked by fact-checking websites as, at best, considerable distortions of the truth.

Challenged by Glenn Thrush, a reporter at the New York Times, Spicer repeated the list of allegations. In response, the broadcaster Joy Reid, who was not present, tweeted: “We are officially through the looking glass.”

When Thrush followed up with a question about Nunes’s visit to the White House, Spicer accused his paper of inaccurate reporting. A testy exchange followed.

The press secretary demanded: “Where’s any of the reporting been in your paper about Evelyn Farkas and her revelation that this is what they sought to do?”

When Thrush sought to return to the matter in hand and asked if White House chief of staff Reince Priebus knew about Nunes’s presence on the grounds, Spicer said: “You’re playing cute there.”

Another reporter pointed out that Farkas left the Obama administration in 2015 and asked why what she said in 2017 would be relevant to something that happened in 2016.

Spicer lectured reporters again, telling them to investigate Farkas’s claims and activities. Later, he was pressed on whether the White House was providing any information to the House and Senate intelligence committee to show that Trump was under surveillance before the election, as his tweet alleged.

Once more he pivoted, saying that focusing on dates was “splitting hairs”.

Spicer said forcefully: “I think it is really getting lost in this debate that American citizens who were not government employees at the time, who were not targets of stuff, potentially were surveilled, had their information unmasked, made it available, it was politically spread.

“All of this should be very concerning to people that people in an administration, people serving in government, who are provided classified information, who are given clearance in the trust of the United States government, misused, mishandled and potentially did some very bad things with classified information.

“That astonishes me that that is not the subject of this, that all of this is happening in our country.

“And yet we talk about what door someone came in, what date it happened. There is a concern that people misused, mishandled, misdirected classified information, leaked it out, spread it out, violated civil liberties, and the potential that that happened should concern every single American.”

He added: “I think that the revelations of Evelyn Farkas who played a senior role in the Obama administration going on the record to talk about how they politically used classified information is troubling.”

During the press briefing, Farkas tweeted: “Amen, Brother. Who benefits from this fake news? R-U–S–S-I–A.”

The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee, Adam Schiff of California, was due to visit the White House on Friday to view classified materials.

Meanwhile Spicer said Trump was happy his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, had offered to testify to the congressional investigations. Flynn has requested immunity from prosecution.

“He wants Mike Flynn to go and be completely open and transparent with the committee,” Spicer said.

Asked if he had any concerns that Flynn could implicate the president in wrongdoing, Spicer replied flatly: “No.”

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