White House Chief of Staff John Kelly brushes aside Trump aide charges, wants investigation of Hillary Clinton

White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly on Monday brushed aside charges leveled at three Trump campaign aides as part of the special counsel’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, but endorsed a new independent prosecutor to delve into a 2010 uranium company deal that has become a rallying cry for opponents of Hillary Clinton.

Kelly, speaking on Fox News’ “The Ingraham Angle,” claimed that all of the activities involving former Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, his chief aide Richard W. Gates III and a foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, occurred “long before they ever met Donald Trump or had any association with the campaign.”

In fact, the investigation, being directed by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, covered the period in which all three served under Trump.

Manafort and Gates were charged in a 12-count indictment that alleged money laundering, among other crimes. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians during the campaign.

Ingraham did not correct Kelly, who later went on to say that “the reaction of the administration is to let the legal system work.… Everyone is presumed innocent, and we’ll see where it goes.”

Kelly also expressed confidence that the Mueller investigation was nearing its end.

“It should wrap up soon,” he said. “It would seem that they’re toward the end of the witness pile.”

“I don’t know how much longer it can possibly go on,” he said, adding that the president found the investigation “very distracting.”

As for the uranium deal — in which the Russian nuclear energy authority took over part of a Canadian company — it was approved by the Treasury Department and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Republicans, including Trump, have claimed then-Secretary of State Clinton benefited from the deal. But there is no evidence she even weighed in on it.

Asked by Ingraham if a special counsel should be appointed, Kelly replied, “I think so.”

“I think this kind of thing — we need to find someone who is very, very objective who can get to the bottom of these accusations,” he said.

Kelly also weighed in on the question of how, or whether, to honor Confederate soldiers, an issue that has been at the center of debates about the removal of Civil War statues.

“Robert E. Lee was an honorable man,” he said of the general who gave up his federal Army commission to lead the Virginia and Confederate forces. “He was a man who gave up his country to fight for his state.”

The “lack of an ability to compromise led to the Civil War,” Kelly said. He did not explain what sort of compromise would have been desirable.

The interview was the first since Kelly angrily denounced a Florida congresswoman who had criticized Trump for what she said was a disrespectful condolence call to Myeshia Johnson, the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson, who died this month when his unit was attacked in Niger.

Rep. Frederica Wilson, a friend of the family, had listened in on the call, and her characterization was supported by the widow and another person who heard it.

But in an emotional appearance in the White House briefing room on Oct. 19, Kelly had relentlessly attacked the congresswoman, calling her an “empty barrel.”

Kelly focused his criticism on a speech Wilson gave in 2015 at the dedication of a Miami building named for fallen FBI agents, saying that she had boasted about her success in procuring money to build the structure.

Video of the speech, however, proved Kelly wrong. Wilson was not in Congress when the money was appropriated, and in the speech she had credited herself and other politicians, including Republicans, for swiftly pushing through a bill to honor the agents by naming the building for them. She spent most of the speech praising law enforcement officers and asking them to stand for recognition.

Kelly altered his description of the offending circumstances on Monday night, saying that the remarks occurred before and after the speech.

Asked by Ingraham if he planned to apologize for his misstatement, he replied: “No, no, never.”

“I’ll apologize if I need to. For something like this, absolutely not. I stand by my comments,” he said.

But he made clear his criticism was limited to the congresswoman and did not extend to Myeshia Johnson.

“As far as the young widow goes, she has every right to say anything she wants to say,” he said.

For more on politics from Cathleen Decker »

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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