Washington — White House lawyers have instructed the president’s aides to preserve materials that could be connected to Russian interference in the 2016 election and other related investigations, three administration officials said on Wednesday.
The instructions, which were sent to White House staff on Tuesday, come after Senate Democrats last week asked the White House and law enforcement agencies to keep all materials involving contacts that Trump’s administration, campaign and transition team — or anyone acting on their behalf — have had with Russian government officials or their associates.
The Senate intelligence committee, which is investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election, has also asked more than a dozen organisations, agencies and individuals to preserve relevant records.
The three administration officials who confirmed that White House staffers were instructed to comply did so on the condition of anonymity, because they were not authorised to publicly disclose the memo from White House counsel Don McGahn.
President Donald Trump has been dogged by questions about his advisors’ ties to Russia since the campaign. Federal investigators have been looking into possible contacts between Trump advisors and Russia, while congressional committees are investigating Russia’s role in political hacking during the campaign.
The intelligence community has assessed that Russia’s hacking of Democratic groups and operatives was carried out to help Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
One official said McGahn’s memo instructs White House staff to preserve material from Trump’s time in office, and for those who worked on the campaign, relevant material from the election.
A Trump spokesperson said the White House was “simply taking proactive steps” and called the accusations of nefarious ties between the president and Russia “false and politically motivated attacks”.
Congressional staffers have said they are not aware of any evidence that materials related to Russia are not being preserved.
But Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York said last week: “There is real concern that some in the administration may try to cover up its ties to Russia by deleting emails, texts and other records that could shine a light on those connections. These records are likely to be the subject of executive branch as well as congressional investigations and must be preserved.”
Trump has denied having any knowledge that aides were in touch with Russian intelligence agents during the election, as reported by The New York Times.
The White House has launched an aggressive effort to discredit the report, including enlisting GOP chairmen of the congressional intelligence committees to push back against it.
The involvement of North Carolina Sen Richard Burr and California Rep Devin Nunes has sparked calls – mostly from Democrats – for a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s role in the election and possible ties to Trump.
The White House has acknowledged that Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, misled top officials about the nature of his contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the US.
Flynn initially told Vice President Mike Pence and other Trump advisors that he did not discuss sanctions with the envoy during the transition, though it was later revealed that he did.
The FBI interviewed Flynn about the contacts days after the inauguration. Trump fired Flynn after the discrepancies in his account were publicly revealed.
Meanwhile, Jeff Sessions, while still a US senator, spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador, encounters he did not disclose when asked during his confirmation hearing to become attorney general about possible contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian officials, The Washington Post reported, citing Justice Department officials.
One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what US intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the US presidential race, the Post reported.
Trump’s first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, was fired last month after he discussed US sanctions on Russia with Kislyak before Trump took office and misled Pence about the conversations.
As attorney general, Sessions oversees the Justice Department, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which have been leading investigations into Russian meddling and any links to Trump’s associates.
When Sessions spoke with Kislyak in July and September, he was a senior member of the influential Senate Armed Services Committee as well as one of Trump’s top foreign policy advisors, according to the Post.
Sessions played a prominent role supporting Trump after formally joining the campaign in February 2016.
At his January 10 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing, Sessions was asked by Democratic Senator Al Franken what he would do if he learned of any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of the 2016 campaign, the Post reported.
“I’m not aware of any of those activities,” Sessions responded, according to the Post. He added: “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.”