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Trump dodges questions as Russia scandal deepens
[WASHINGTON] Donald Trump dodged questions about ties with Russia, railed against intelligence leaks and defended a key aide he just fired, as crisis engulfed his young presidency Wednesday.
Amid revelations that Trump aides were in repeated contact with Russian intelligence officials in the run-up to his shock election victory last year, the Republican billionaire battened down the hatches.
In a barrage of early morning tweets, the 70-year-old president accused his own intelligence community of being behind the leaks, directly pointing the finger at the National Security Agency and the FBI.
"This Russian connection non-sense is merely an attempt to cover-up the many mistakes made in Hillary Clinton's losing campaign," Mr Trump said in one tweet.
"The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by 'intelligence' like candy. Very un-American!" he stormed.
At a press conference with visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr Trump called on journalists sympathetic to his administration in order to dodge tough questions about his aides' ties to Moscow.
He addressed the high-profile sacking of national security advisor Michael Flynn, only to blame the media for his ill-treatment.
"I think he's been treated very, very unfairly by the media, as I call it, the fake media in many cases," Mr Trump said.
"I think it's really a sad thing that he was treated so badly," he added.
Mr Trump demanded Mr Flynn's resignation on Monday, after wiretaps showed he falsely claimed that he did not discuss sanctions policy with the Russian ambassador in Washington.
Since then, Mr Trump's administration has been shaken by new reports of high-level Russian contacts with his aides and associates during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Among those picked up on the calls was Paul Manafort, a Trump campaign chairman who had worked as a political consultant in Ukraine, The New York Times said. Mr Manafort called the report "absurd". In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the latest allegations.
"Don't believe newspaper reports - it's very difficult at the moment to differentiate them from falsehoods and fabrications," Mr Peskov told reporters.
"If you don't mind, let's wait and let's not believe anonymous information, which is information based on no fact," he said.
The revelations have infuriated Democrats and unsettled Republican leaders wary about Mr Trump's professed desire for better relations with Moscow.
"This ongoing story is a perfect piece of evidence as to why we should not trust Russia," House Speaker Paul Ryan said.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers have now called for an investigation into what happened, although they differ sharply on the scope and powers of the probe.
Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren insisted that Mr Trump "owes Americans a full account" of his campaign and administration's dealings with Moscow.
The Senate's top Republican Mitch McConnell said it was "highly likely" that Mr Flynn would have to testify before an intelligence panel.
Adding to the White House's woes, his pick for labour secretary Andrew Puzder withdrew from consideration Wednesday.
The 66-year-old fast-food executive was under fire for his opposition to a minimum wage, his hiring of an undocumented migrant and old video that emerged of his ex-wife alleging domestic abuse.
Mr Puzder denied the allegation, which was later withdrawn.
In January, US intelligence agencies released a declassified report concluding that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally ordered a wide-ranging campaign to disrupt and ultimately influence the US election in Mr Trump's favour.
The issue reignited following disclosures last month that Mr Flynn, a retired general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, made five phone calls with Russia's ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, on Dec 29.
That was the same day that outgoing president Barack Obama was launching retaliatory sanctions against Russia for its alleged meddling in the elections.
When the phone calls came to light, Mr Flynn denied to Vice-President Mike Pence and other White House officials that he had discussed the sanctions with Mr Kislyak, and Mr Pence repeated the denial in a television interview on Jan 15.
On Jan 26, acting attorney general Sally Yates informed the White House legal counsel that intelligence intercepts show that Mr Flynn was lying about the nature of the call, the White House acknowledged on Tuesday.
White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Mr Trump was told about the intercepts immediately. But Mr Pence was kept out of the loop for two more weeks.
Spokesman Marc Lotter said the vice-president only learned about it in media reports on Feb 9.
The White House insists that Mr Flynn was not acting on Mr Trump's instructions when he discussed the sanctions with Mr Kislyak, but questions have been raised about why it took Mr Trump so long to fire his national security adviser.
The White House counsel "determined that there is not an illegal issue, but rather a trust issue," Mr Spicer said.
"The evolving and eroding level of trust as a result... is what led the president to ask for General Flynn's resignation."
Mr Flynn is the third Trump aide to step back amid questions about his ties to Russia since the mogul began his improbable White House bid.
His departure follows those of Manafort and Carter Page, an early foreign policy adviser to the candidate.