Officials identify White House 'person of interest' in Trump-Russia investigation

Lauren Gambino and Ben Jacobs
Donald and Melania Trump wave as they board Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland Friday. Photograph: Alex Brandon/AP

The FBI investigation into ties between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Russian officials has reached the White House, according to a damaging new report on Friday.

The Washington Post reported that investigators have identified a current White House official as a significant person of interest, according to people familiar with the matter. The individual is described as someone who is “close to the president”.

In a statement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer did not deny the report, saying simply: “As the president has stated before – a thorough investigation will confirm that there was no collusion between the campaign and any foreign entity.”

The news came just days after former FBI director Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel to investigate Trump, his ties to Russia and Russia’s role in interfering in the 2016 presidential election.

A spokeswoman for the FBI declined to comment. “We’re not making any comments on the Russia investigation.”

The news broke minutes after Air Force One departed Joint Base Andrews for Riyadh, Trump’s first stop on his inaugural international trip as president.

And the development came minutes after a New York Times report that revealed previously undisclosed details of Trump’s controversial Oval Office meeting with Russian officials, which occurred one day after the president fired FBI director James Comey, who was leading the investigation into Russian meddling in the US election.

“I just fired the head of the FBI. He was crazy, a real nut job,” Trump said, according to a New York Times story, citing a document that was read to the paper by an American official. “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”

Trump added: “I’m not under investigation.”

The White House did not dispute the account, which is said to have been based on notes taken from inside the Oval Office which were circulated as an official account of the 10 May meeting.

“By grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our ability to engage and negotiate with Russia,” Spicer said in a statement. “The investigation would have always continued, and obviously, the termination of Comey would not have ended it.

“Once again, the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

The new revelations add another complicating factor to what was already a problematic meeting with with Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. It was not disclosed to the US press, which was barred from the room, that the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, was attending.

Kislyak has come under scrutiny over his repeated conversations with former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who was fired for lying about those conversations to vice-president Mike Pence. In addition, several outlets reported that Trump divulged “highly classified” intelligence from an Israeli counter-terrorism operation against Isis and risked blowing a key intelligence asset of a close US ally.

Both the revelations that a senior White House official was under investigation and Trump’s comments to Lavrov came just as the president departed for his first overseas trip on Friday, including stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican.

The White House had hoped the orchestrated trip would put Trump center stage as he went from the centers of three great world religions to Brussels and Sicily for meetings with Nato leaders and G7 economic powers. However, Trump’s woes at home now seem certain to dominate his public appearances.

Also on Friday, the White House announced two ambassadorships, including the appointment of Callista Gingrich, the president of the Gingrich foundation and the wife of Trump supporter and former House speaker Newt Gingrich, to represent the US to the Holy See. Callista Gingrich, a lifelong Catholic, is her husband’s third wife; the two had an affair during his marriage to his second wife. Divorce is considered a sin in the Catholic church, and the issue has become more divisive in the church. Last year, Pope Francis endorsed an idea that could pave the way for some Catholics who are divorced and remarried to receive communion.

It was also announced that the former Fox News pundit KT McFarland would leave her position as deputy national security adviser to be ambassador to Singapore. McFarland, who joined the White House with Flynn, had reportedly been at loggerheads with the national security adviser, HR McMaster.

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