FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe may have violated multiple existing Justice Department rules controlling contacts between the bureau and White House officials when they spoke earlier this month with White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about their ongoing investigation into Russia’s influence operation against the 2016 U.S. presidential election, according to several former senior Justice Department officials. The first questionable contact came when McCabe spoke with Priebus for five minutes after a 7:30 a.m. meeting at the White House on Feb. 15 on an unrelated intelligence issue. The day before, the New York Times had reported that Trump’s campaign and other Trump associates had multiple contacts with known agents of Russian intelligence in the year before the election. At the White House meeting, McCabe told Priebus, ‘I want you to know story in NYT is BS,” according to senior Administration officials who briefed reporters on Feb. 24. Priebus asked McCabe what could be done to push back, saying the White House was “getting crushed” on the story. McCabe demurred, and then later called back to say, “We’d love to help but we can’t get into the position of making statements on every story.”
FBI Director James Comey later called Priebus himself and repeated McCabe’s statements about the New York Times story. Comey also said he was unwilling to speak publicly about the piece but agreed to let Priebus cite senior intelligence officials in his pushback, the officials said.
The back-and-forth may have broken internal rules in place for decades, according to former officials.
After President Nixon’s scandals in the early 1970s, the Carter Administration imposed rules designed to prevent the FBI from meddling in politics, and to keep politicians from meddling in criminal investigations. In Bill Clinton’s first term, Attorney General Janet Reno limited contacts between the White House and law enforcement regarding criminal investigations to the top three officials at the Justice Department on the one hand and the President, Vice President and the top two White House lawyers on the other. George W. Bush loosened those limits after 9/11, but after a series of scandals, his last Attorney General, Michael Mukasey reimposed them. Those limits were again adopted by the Obama Administration in a 2009 memo by then-Attorney General Eric Holder.