President Trump on Wednesday came to the defense of ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, saying the former aide was subjected to “criminal” leaks in the “fake media.”
“I think he’s been treated very, very unfairly by the media — as I call it, the fake media, in many cases,” Trump said at a press conference Wednesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “I think it’s really a sad thing he was treated so badly.”
Trump's first in-person reaction to Flynn’s exit appeared to contradict the account of his top spokesman, who said Tuesday that the president demanded the aide’s resignation because of an “eroding level of trust” over his conversations with Russia.
Trump called Flynn a “wonderful man” and doubled down on his condemnation of the leaks from the intelligence community that exposed Flynn misled senior officials in the White House about his conversations with Russia’s ambassador. Those conversations took place the day that then-President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for its interference in the election.
“From intelligence, papers are being leaked, things are being leaked, it's criminal action. It's a criminal act, and it's been going on for a long time before me, but now it's really going on,” Trump said.
“People are trying to cover up for a terrible loss that the Democrats had under Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRoger Stone on allegations of Russian ties: 'They have no proof of it and it was unnecessary' “60 Minutes” tracks how fake news spreads Ill. gov candidate runs as fresh face, despite ties to political machine MORE,” he continued.
Trump’s comments followed a string of tweets Wednesday morning, in which he sought to shift attention away from the contents of Flynn’s conversations with Russia’s U.S. envoy and toward the leaking of classified information.
“The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!” he tweeted.
Reports from The New York Times and CNN have also asserted that intercepted phone calls and phone records showed several aides and allies to Trump’s campaign were frequently in contact with Russian intelligence operatives.
There is no evidence that those officials collaborated with Russia on its hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and Clinton campaign officials.
But the reports turned up the temperature on long-simmering questions about the Trump team’s dealings with Russia, a longtime U.S. adversary.
Trump was not asked directly about those reports during his news conference with Netanyahu.
He took questions from two U.S. reporters representing the Christian Broadcasting Network and the conservative website Townhall, who asked him about his stance on Israeli settlement activity, a Palestinian peace deal and Iran.
Trump declined to answer a shouted question from CNN’s Jim Acosta about the Russia reports at the conclusion of the news conference. He turned to members of the media, said "thank you," and walked off the podium in the East Room with Netanyahu as his aides and advisers stood and applauded.
Later during a meeting with Netanyahu in the Oval Office, Trump again refused to answer another shouted question on the topic from another CNN reporter, Sarah Murray.
The swirling controversy over Flynn and Russia overshadowed Netanyahu’s first White House visit since Trump’s inauguration, which typically would consume media coverage.
Trump’s comments raised new questions about the circumstances surrounding Flynn’s sudden departure just 24 days into the president’s term.
His defense of Flynn was odd, given that he ostensibly asked for his resignation because he lost his trust.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday Trump fired Flynn because he felt that his trust in him “eroded” because he gave a false account of his talks to Vice President Pence, who then publicly denied the adviser discussed sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s U.S. envoy.
“There is not a legal issue but rather a trust issue,” Spicer said, adding the circumstances created a “critical mass and an unsustainable situation.”
“The president must have complete and unwavering trust for the person in that position,” he said.
- This story was updated at 1:57 p.m.