World

White House battling to keep scandal away

Trump knew about Russian link for weeks and kept VP Pence in the dark

WASHINGTON: The White House is battling to insulate President Donald Trump from a growing scandal, as it emerged that, for weeks, he was aware of a top aide's contacts with Russia.

Amid calls for an independent investigation, the White House admitted that Mr Trump was told three weeks ago that national security adviser Michael Flynn may have misled colleagues about his Kremlin contacts.

The retired three-star general and former head of defence intelligence initially denied discussing sanctions strategy with Russia's ambassador Sergey Kislyak before taking office.

That may have breached US law on negotiating with foreign powers and was a significant break with the norm that incoming administrations accept the US has "one government at a time".

Mr Flynn was asked to resign on Monday, after the White House said an internal investigation turned up no evidence of wrongdoing but had "eroded" trust.

Law enforcement and intelligence agents intercepted calls and obtained phone records showing that members of Mr Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and other aides had repeated contacts with top Russian intelligence officials in the year that preceded the Nov 8 presidential election, The New York Times reported.

After finding evidence that Russia was seeking to disrupt the election, US intelligence agencies tried to determine whether the Trump campaign was cooperating with Moscow on hacking and other related efforts, the report said.

But, it added that no such evidence had so far been found.

The White House had painted Mr Trump's decision on the resignation as based on Mr Flynn having misled Vice-President Mike Pence.

But it emerged that Mr Trump had kept his deputy, who publicly defended Mr Flynn and repeated his claims, in the dark for two weeks. Spokesman Marc Lotter said Mr Pence got to know of the issue only last Thursday, in media reports.

Mr Trump, in a tweet yesterday, dismissed the idea of any "Russian connection" as "nonsense".

But the unprecedented early resignation of a key member of his staff has rocked an administration already buffeted by leaks, infighting and legal defeats.

The White House also insisted Mr Trump - despite repeatedly professing admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and suggesting sanctions could be lifted - "has been incredibly tough on Russia".

The Senate's top Republican Mitch McConnell said it was "highly likely" Mr Flynn would have to testify before an intelligence panel, potentially heaping pressure on Trump. - AFP

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