By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump dismissed media reports that his presidential campaign team had contacts with Russian intelligence officials, saying on Thursday that he was not aware of any member of his team having been in touch with Russia ahead of the November election.
As his administration grapples with a growing controversy about the relationship between his aides and Moscow, Trump also said he had not directed his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to talk to Russia’s ambassador about U.S. sanctions before taking office.
Speaking at a White House news conference, Trump dismissed the controversy about the relationship between his aides and Moscow as a “scam” and “a ruse” perpetrated by a hostile news media.
Trump said he had asked the Justice Department to look into the leaks of “classified information that was given illegally” to journalists regarding the relationship between his aides and Russia.
“The leaks are absolutely real. The news is fake,” Trump said.
He also said he did not think that Russian President Vladimir Putin was taking actions that would test him early in his term in office.
Trump, who took office on Jan. 20 and has voiced supported for improved ties with Russia, added that he personally had no business deals in that country.
The New York Times reported on Tuesday that phone call records and intercepted calls showed members of Trump’s presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the Nov. 8 election in which Trump defeated Democrat Hillary Clinton.
Pressed by reporters about whether he was aware if any member of his presidential campaign team had contacts with Russia before the election, the Republican president said, “Nobody that I know of.”
Trump asked for and received Flynn’s resignation on Monday after disclosures that the senior aide had discussed U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration with the Russian ambassador to the United States before Trump took office, and that Flynn later misled Vice President Mike Pence about the conversations.
“You know, first everybody got excited because they thought he did something wrong. After they thought about it, it turned out he was just doing his job,” Trump said of Flynn regarding the discussion with the Russian ambassador.
“No, I didn’t direct him, but I would have directed him if he didn’t do it. OK?” Trump said, who said the problem was Flynn’s having misled Pence.
Trump, a wealthy new York real estate developer with global business interests, also portrayed himself as having no ties to Russia.
“I can tell you, speaking for myself, I own nothing in Russia. I have no loans in Russia. I don’t have any deals in Russia,” Trump said.
(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Will Dunham; Editing by Frances Kerry)