WASHINGTON — On the defensive, the White House is throwing counter punches to deflect attention from three investigations into the Kremlin's interference in last year's election and possible Russian ties to President Donald Trump or his associates.
The White House says the real story is not about Russia, but about how Obama administration officials allegedly leaked and mishandled classified material about Americans. Reaching back to campaign mode, Trump aides also contend that Hillary Clinton had more extensive ties to Moscow than Trump.
Arguing the White House's case Friday, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer said: "There is a concern that people misused, mishandled, misdirected classified information — leaked it out, spread it out, violated civil liberties."
The White House has not pointed to any hard evidence to support its allegations, and instead has relied on media reports from some of the same publications Trump derides as "fake news." The truth is buried somewhere in classified material that is illegal to disclose.
THE FLYNN AFFAIR
Trump fired national security adviser Michael Flynn following news reports that Flynn misled the White House about his contacts with Russia's ambassador to the U.S. But the White House says the problem is that Flynn's conversations were in the news at all.
"The real story here is why are there so many illegal leaks coming out of Washington?" Trump tweeted after firing Flynn in February.
The White House has called for investigations into the disclosure of multiple intercepted conversations that Flynn had with Ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the inauguration. The government routinely monitors the communications of foreign officials in the U.S. It's illegal to publicly disclose such classified information.
Officially, the White House said Flynn was forced to resign because he'd give inaccurate descriptions of the discussions to Vice-President Mike Pence and others in the White House. But Trump has continued to defend Flynn, suggesting he was only fired because information about his contacts came out in the media.
"Michael Flynn, Gen. Flynn is a wonderful man," Trump said. "I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media."
THE DEEP STATE?
White House officials say some Obama holdovers are part of a so-called deep state out to tear Trump down.
This week, the White House latched onto a month-old television interview from an Obama administration official who said she encouraged congressional aides to gather as much information on Russia as possible before the inauguration.
Evelyn Farkas, the former deputy assistant secretary of defence , said she feared that information "would disappear" after President Barack Obama left office.
Spicer called Farkas' comments "devastating" and said they "raised serious concerns on whether or not there was an organized and widespread effort by the Obama administration to use and leak highly sensitive intelligence information for political purposes."
Farkas was no longer in government when she urged officials to collect intelligence on "the staff, the Trump staff, dealing with Russians." She left the Pentagon in 2015, just over a year before the election. She says she was offering advice to associates and did not pass on actual information.
Obama administration officials have acknowledged that there were efforts to preserve information that could be related to the Russian investigations, as was first reported in The New York Times. Former Obama officials contend that intelligence was disseminated to pockets of the government where officials had clearance to see classified reports, not publicly leaked.
Still, Farkas herself connected the concerns among government officials about the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia to the information winding up in the press.
"That's why you have the leaking," Farkas said in the March 2 interview on MSNBC. "People are worried."
THE HILL WEIGHS IN
The White House has embraced a top Republican's assertion that information about Trump associates were improperly spread around the government in the final days of the Obama administration. It appears the White House played a role in helping House intelligence committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., acquire some of that information.
Nunes announced last week that he had seen intelligence reports showing that Trump aides' communications were picked up through routine surveillance. But he said their identities may have been improperly revealed. The California congressman later said he viewed the reports at the White House.
The White House contends that Nunes' information — which has not been made public — validates Trump's explosive claim that his predecessor wiretapped his New York skyscraper. Nunes has disputed that but still says he found the reports "troubling."
The White House's apparent involvement in helping Nunes access the information has overshadowed what Trump officials contend are real concerns about how much information about Americans is disseminated in intelligence reports. Trump has asked the House and Senate intelligence committees to include the matter in their Russia investigations.
Trump won the election, but thinks it's his vanquished opponent whose ties to Russia should be investigated.
Some of the White House's allegations against Clinton stem from her four years as secretary of state, a role that gave her ample reasons to have frequent contacts with Russia.
To deflect questions about Trump's friendly rhetoric toward Russia, the White House points to the fact that Clinton was a central figure in the Obama administration's attempt to "reset" relations with Moscow — an effort that crumbled after Vladimir Putin took back the presidency.
"When you compare the two sides in terms of who's actually engaging with Russia, trying to strengthen them, trying to act with them, trying to interact with them, it is night and day between our actions and her actions," Spicer said.
Rex Tillerson, Trump's secretary of state, has deep ties to Russia from his time running ExxonMobil and cutting oil deals with Moscow.
The White House has also tried to link Clinton to Russia's purchase of a controlling stake in a mining company with operations in the U.S., arguing that she was responsible for "selling off one-fifth of our country's uranium."
The Clinton-led State Department was among nine U.S. government agencies that had to approve the purchase of Uranium One. According to Politifact, some investors in the company had relationships with former President Bill Clinton and donated to the Clinton Foundation. However, the fact checking site says most of those donations occurred well before Clinton became secretary of state and was in position to have a say in the agreement.
On Twitter, follow Deb Riechmann at http://twitter.com/debriechmann and Julie Pace at http://twitter.com/jpaceDC
Deb Riechmann And Julie Pace, The Associated Press