WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has accused the media of treating Michael Flynn, "very, very unfairly" in its coverage of the former White House national security adviser's conversations with a Russian diplomat.
Trump's denunciation at a February 15 news conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came two days after Flynn's abrupt resignation amid an uproar over phone calls he held with Russia's ambassador to the United States prior to Trump's inauguration on January 20.
The circumstances have triggered mounting calls in Congress for investigations into potential ties between Trump's associates and the Russian government.
The White House, meanwhile, has moved to portray itself as firm on Moscow, with Trump tweeting earlier on February 15 that Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula was "taken by Russia" and suggesting his predecessor, Barack Obama, was "soft on Russia."
Speaking alongside Netanyahu at the White House, Trump called Flynn "a wonderful man."
"I think he has been treated very, very unfairly by the media. As I call it, the fake media, in many cases. And I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly," he said.
Trump also criticized those who leaked information about the issue to the media, calling it a "criminal act."
Trump's administration announced late on February 13 that Flynn resigned after media reports said U.S. intelligence agencies discovered Flynn had discussed the issue of U.S. sanctions on Russia with Moscow's ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, while Obama was still in office.
The White House insists Flynn didn't violate a U.S. law against private citizens engaging in U.S. diplomacy, saying that Flynn was asked to resign because he misled Vice President Mike Pence and others about the nature of his conversations.
The FBI reportedly interviewed Flynn on the subject just days after Trump took office.
Trump's fresh criticism of the media followed a February 14 report in The New York Times that quoted current and former U.S. officials as saying members of Trump's campaign and other associates had contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the months before the November 2016 presidential election.
Both Trump and Putin have expressed hope that relations between the United States and Russia will improve during Trump's administration, and both have called in particular for closer cooperation against terrorism.
Ties have been badly strained by rancor over issues including Russia's interference in Ukraine, its role in the war in Syria, and what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a hacking and propaganda campaign to meddle in the U.S. presidential election with the aim of undermining the United States, discrediting Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton, and helping Trump.
Amid the furor that surrounded Flynn's resignation, the Trump administration has pushed back against suggestions that Trump could pursue a one-sided deal favoring Moscow in pursuit of detente.
The White House has seized on the issue of Ukraine's Crimea territory, which Russia annexed in March 2014 after sending in troops and staging a referendum that has been denounced as illegal by the United States and a total of 100 countries in the UN General Assembly.
Trump said on Twitter on February 15 that "Crimea was taken by Russia" during the Obama administration and added, "Was Obama too soft on Russia?"
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said a day earlier that Trump has "made it very clear" that he expects Russia to "return Crimea" and reduce violence in eastern Ukraine, where a war between government forces and Russia-backed separatists has killed more than 9,750 people since April 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman responded to that remark in a conference call with reporters on February 15, saying that Moscow will not discuss the return of Crimea to Ukraine with the United States or any other country.
Spokesman Dmitry Peskov referred to Crimea as Russian territory, saying that "Russia never discusses issues related to its territories with foreign partners, including the United States."
Peskov said that Trump did not raise the issue of Crimea in his January 28 telephone conversation with Putin.
He also dismissed The New York Times report that said Trump associates had contacts with Russian intelligence officials ahead of the U.S. election, claiming it was "not based on any facts."
"Let's not believe anonymous information," Peskov said.
Flynn told the news site Daily Caller on February 14 that "there were no lines crossed" in his conversations with Kislyak. He said they spoke about the 35 Russian diplomats expelled by the Obama administration on December 29 as part of sanctions imposed on Russia by Obama's administration over the alleged meddling in the U.S. election and harassment of U.S. diplomats.
"It wasn't about sanctions. It was about the 35 guys who were thrown out," Flynn said. "It was basically: 'Look, I know this happened. We'll review everything.' I never said anything such as, 'We're going to review sanctions,' or anything like that."
But Reuters reported that phone transcripts show that Flynn told Kislyak that if Russia did not to respond in kind to the Obama sanctions as it had when sanctions were announced in the past, that could smooth the way toward a broader discussion of improving U.S.-Russian relations once Trump took power.
After the U.S. sanctions were announced, Putin took the uncharacteristic step of announcing he would not respond in kind.
The growing questions about Russia's relations with the Trump administration prompted U.S. lawmakers, including some leading Republicans, to call for a deeper inquiry into not just Flynn's actions but broader White House ties to Russia.
Senator John McCain of Arizona, an influential Republican, said Flynn's resignation raised questions about the Trump administration's intentions toward Moscow, "including statements by the president suggesting moral equivalence between the United States and Russia despite its invasion of Ukraine, annexation of Crimea, threats to our NATO allies, and attempted interference in American elections."
Flynn's resignation is "a troubling indication of the dysfunction of the current national security apparatus," he said in a statement.
The leading Democrat in the Senate, Charles Schumer of New York, called for an independent investigation into whether Flynn or other Trump administration officials may have committed crimes.
"What I am calling for is an independent investigation with executive authority to pursue potential criminal actions," Schumer told reporters. "There are potential violations of law here by General Flynn and potentially others."
Trump hit back in another February 15 tweet, writing: "The fake news media is going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred. This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign."
In addition to the sanction imposed in December, the Obama administration has imposed successive rounds of sanctions on Russia over its seizure of Crimea and actions in eastern Ukraine.
Trump suggested during the election campaign that he would consider easing sanctions and possibly even recognizing Crimea as Russian, but members of his administration have said since his inauguration that Crimea belongs to Ukraine.
His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said on February 3 that the United States "continues to condemn and call for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea," and that "Crimea-related sanctions will remain in place until Russia returns control over the peninsula to Ukraine."
Speaking on February 15, Kremlin spokesman Peskov also responded to U.S. media reports that quoted U.S. officials as saying Russia had deployed cruise missiles in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a 1987 pact between Moscow and Washington.
"Russia has been and remains committed to its international commitments, including to the treaty in question," Peskov said.
"Nobody has formally accused Russia of violating the treaty," he said.
More broadly, Peskov said that it was too early to talk about the "normalization" of ties between Russia and the United States while Trump's administration was still being built.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, Interfax, TASS, The New York Times, and CNN