President Trump lashed out at the intelligence community Wednesday for “criminal” leaks of classified material, saying that was what caused the downfall of White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
His comments fed the furor on Capitol Hill, where Democrats and a growing number of Republicans said the Trump team’s contacts with Russia, both during the campaign and during the transition, deserved to be investigated.
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has requested access to documents, even as some Democrats demanded the appointment of a special counsel to lead a separate Justice Department probe.
“We’re already starting to review the raw intelligence. We are well down this path,” Sen. Mark R. Warner, the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, told reporters.
Mr. Trump forced Mr. Flynn to resign Monday for misleading officials about conversations with a Russian diplomat. On Wednesday, though, the president said the real problem is politically motivated U.S. intelligence operatives who are trying to undermine his administration by leaking sensitive documents to the media.
“From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked, it’s criminal action, a criminal act,” Mr. Trump said at a White House press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “It’s been going on for a long time, before me, but now it’s really going on. People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary Clinton.”
SEE ALSO: Devin Nunes: Most leaks likely coming from Obama-era personnel
The president said Mr. Flynn “is a wonderful man.”
“I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media,” Mr. Trump said. “As I call it, the ‘fake media,’ in many cases. I think it’s really a sad thing that he was treated so badly.”
Just 24 hours earlier, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Mr. Trump asked for Mr. Flynn’s resignation because he no longer trusted him.
The president defended his former aide as new allegations were being raised in leaked intelligence documents about contacts between some of Mr. Trump’s campaign aides and Russian officials before the election last year. Mr. Trump waged a heated battle before his inauguration with the intelligence community, arguing that officials such as the CIA director were working against him.
On Capitol Hill, some Democrats called for an independent commission to investigate Mr. Flynn’s conversations prior to the inauguration with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, which allegedly touched on U.S. sanctions. Mr. Flynn misled Vice President Mike Pence and other officials about those conversations, leading to his ouster, Mr. Spicer said.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said Wednesday that he was sending a list of questions to the White House to find out how Mr. Flynn “lied” to Mr. Pence.
“First we need to ask questions and get answers and then decide” what to do, Mr. McCain said. “We will be doing that.”
Later Wednesday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, and Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat, requested a briefing from the Justice Department on Mr. Flynn’s resignationa, They asked Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI Director James Comey to provide details about Mr. Flynn’s reported contacts with Russian officials, the Justice Department’s response, and potential leaks of classified material.
Some Democrats expressed disbelief at Mr. Trump’s belated defense of the man he fired.
“This has been not only a dysfunctional National Security Council, but a dysfunctional White House overall,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat who serves on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said on MSNBC. “This is a White House that’s plagued with infighting.”
The president ignored questions from reporters twice on Wednesday about contacts between Russia and Mr. Flynn, as well as others close to Mr. Trump. On Twitter and in the press conference, he directed attention instead to leaks of classified information.
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” he wrote on Twitter.
He also tweeted: “This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton’s losing campaign.”
The problems for Mr. Flynn deepened two weeks ago, when news stories cited transcripts of his phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the U.S. Mr. Flynn, who had assured Mr. Pence and other administration officials that he hadn’t discussed U.S. sanctions against Moscow prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration, altered his account after the news reports, saying he couldn’t recall some details of his conversations with Mr. Kislyak.
Mr. Flynn told the Daily Caller News Foundation on Monday that “no lines were crossed” in his conversations.
But Sally Q. Yates, who was acting attorney general, told White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 that Mr. Flynn may have misled officials about the nature of those phone calls. That led to an internal White House review that culminated in Mr. Flynn’s forced resignation.
The White House has said Mr. Flynn was fired because he hadn’t been truthful with administration officials about the content of his discussions with the Russian ambassador.
At at the press conference, however, Mr. Trump characterized the firing as a result of illegal leaks to the media rather than dissatisfaction with Mr. Flynn’s job performance.
“I think it’s very, very unfair what’s happened to Gen. Flynn, the way he was treated, and documents and papers that were illegally, I stress that, illegally leaked,” Mr. Trump said.
Some Republican lawmakers backed up Mr. Trump’s assertions that intelligence operatives were acting out of political motivations.
“Why didn’t they, if they really cared, why didn’t they take it directly to President Trump, to Vice President Pence?” Rep. Steve King, Iowa Republican, asked on CNN. “Have that conversation rather than leaking it out to The New York Times or The [Washington] Post. That is unpatriotic and is an act that undermines our American security.”
Mr. Trump reportedly has offered the national security adviser post to Vice Adm. Robert Harward, former deputy commander at U.S. Central Command who has close ties to Defense Secretary James N. Mattis. He served on the National Security Council in the George W. Bush administration.
Mr. Schiff said the next national security adviser needs to “bring the kind of sober judgment [and] calm demeanor that will help a president that is prone to essentially fly off at the handle.”
⦁ Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.