WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Donald Trump has defended his former advisers over the issue of their confirmed and alleged contacts with Russian officials before Trump was inaugurated on January 20.
Trump's remarks on February 16 during his first extended solo news conference since taking office came amid a mounting furor in Washington over the forced resignation of his national security, adviser Michael Flynn, because of his discussions with Russia's ambassador in Washington.
Flynn's resignation has triggered calls from both Republicans and Democrats in Congress for investigations into potential ties Trump associates may have had with Russian officials ahead of last year's presidential election.
Trump defended Flynn and other former aides against suggestions that they may have had inappropriate interactions with Russian officials.
He insisted that neither he nor his campaign team had any contacts with Russian officials during the election campaign, contradicting an explosive report about the claims.
"They know nothing about it. They weren't in Russia. They never made a phone call to Russia. They never received a phone call. It's all fake news," Trump told reporters in the often testy news conference. "Russia is fake news."
Trump said Flynn was forced to resign not because of his phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in December -- which he portrayed as routine -- but because the former adviser misled Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those calls.
"He was just doing his job," Trump said, who also denied that he directed Flynn to discuss the issue of U.S. sanctions against Russia.
But Trump said it wasn't acceptable that Flynn later claims he could not remember details about his phone conversations with the Russian ambassador.
The calls took place as then President Barack Obama was preparing fresh sanctions against Russia and raised questions about whether Flynn violated a U.S. law forbidding private citizens from negotiating with foreign nations that have a dispute with Washington without government authorization.
Trump also declared that, despite the turmoil he and his cabinet have already faced in less than a month in office, his "administration is running like a fine-tuned machine."
Trump's administration announced late on February 13 that Flynn resigned after media reports said U.S. intelligence agencies discovered the security adviser had discussed the issue of sanctions with Kislyak.
The White House insists Flynn didn't violate any laws but that Trump asked for his resignation due to a "trust issue."
The FBI reportedly interviewed Flynn on the subject just days after Trump took office.
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A February 14 report in The New York Times, meanwhile, cited current and former U.S. officials as saying that members of Trump's campaign and other associates had contacts with Russian intelligence officials in the months before the November 2016 presidential election.
In addition to Flynn, Trump defended another former aide, Paul Manafort, who served as an adviser to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions from 2004 to 2010 and was named in The New York Times report this week.
Manafort resigned as chairman of Trump's campaign in August amid reports about his lobbying work for Ukrainian political figures and failure to register as a foreign agent.
"People knew that he was a consultant over in that part of the world for a while, but not for Russia. I think he represented Ukraine or people having to do with Ukraine," Trump said, noting Manafort's denials of any contacts with Russian officials.
Ties between Russia and the United States have been badly strained over Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014, its subsequent backing of separatists in eastern Ukraine, and its backing of President Bashar al-Assad in the Syria conflict.
Relations were further inflamed over 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.
Trump repeated his stated desire to improve ties with Moscow on February 16, telling reports that "it would be great if we could get along with Russia."
He suggested, however, that the media were hampering a possible rapprochement with Moscow.
"The false, horrible, fake reporting makes it much harder to make a deal with Russia," he said.
Trump also said that he has no business interests in Russia and denounced leaks, which he called "criminal," that have been central to many of the media reports about alleged contacts between Trump's associates and Russian officials.
With reporting by AP, Reuters, AFP and dpa