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White House downplays FBI investigation into campaign's possible links with Moscow

 (Jim Lo Scalzo / European Pressphoto Agency; Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press/TNS)
(Jim Lo Scalzo / European Pressphoto Agency; Olivier Douliery / Abaca Press/TNS)

The White House pushed back against the revelation that the FBI is investigating potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, downplaying the investigation and the role that certain advisors now under scrutiny had in Trump's campaign.

“Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things,” White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters Monday when asked about the FBI inquiry.

Spicer noted that top Republicans in Congress who were briefed on the intelligence said they haven't seen evidence of collusion, and James R. Clapper, former President Obama's director of national intelligence, recently said he had not either

Spicer referred to some of the people reportedly being investigated for possible links to Russia as "hangers-on around the campaign," including Carter Page, who served as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, and Roger Stone, a longtime Trump associate and New York Republican strategist. 

But Spicer also described Paul Manafort, who ran Trump's campaign from April to August in 2016, as having played "a very limited role for a very limited amount of time." Manafort resigned in August after reports surfaced about his connections to the pro-Moscow former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich.

"I think it’s fine to look into it, but at the end of the day, they’re going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had," Spicer said. "So you can continue to look for something, but continuing to look for something that doesn’t exist doesn’t matter."

Instead the White House called for a deeper investigation into who gave information to reporters that exposed conversations between Trump's former national security advisor, Michael Flynn, and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. as well as what surveillance of Trump's camp may have occurred.

That put White House officials in the awkward position of trying to pour cold water on one investigation and gasoline on another.

During the campaign, Trump hammered Clinton for being under FBI investigation for her handling of classified material on a private email server, encouraging chants of "Lock her up!" at rallies. The bureau concluded that her actions did not warrant prosecution.

Since then, Trump has painted the accusations about his campaign's potential ties to Russia as a politically motivated smear by Democrats and former Obama administration officials. 

'"The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign," Trump wrote on Twitter early Monday. 

Spicer took aim at former Obama administration officials, hinting that they were responsible for leaks to reporters about Flynn's conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The two discussed, among other things, sanctions against Russia that the Obama administration had imposed.

Flynn's conversations were picked up by routine surveillance the U.S. government does of Kislyak. The White House and some Republican members of Congress say that whoever revealed that fact to reporters illegally disclosed classified information.

"Not only was Gen. Flynn's identity made available. Director Comey refused to answer the question on whether or not he'd actually briefed President Obama on his phone calls and activities," Spicer said.

FBI Director James B. Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on Monday that agents have been investigating potential links since July.

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